The pageantry of a triumph was indeed a very astonishing sight for the Romans of that period. They had got so unused to them! And no less wonderful was the presence of the Emperor at the Palatine. Since Constantine's reign, the Imperial palaces had been deserted. They had hardly been visited four times in a century by their master.
Rome had never got reconciled to the desertion of her princes. When the Court was moved to Milan, and then to Ravenna, she felt she had been uncrowned. Time after time the Senate appealed to Honorius to shew himself, at least, to his Roman subjects, since political reasons were against his dwelling among them. This journey was always put off. The truth is, the Christian Caesars did not like Rome, and mistrusted her still half-pagan Senate and people. It needed this unhoped-for victory to bring Honorius and his councillors to make up their minds. The feeling of a common danger had for the moment drawn the two opposing religions together, and here they were apparently making friends in the same patriotic delight. Old hates were forgotten. In fact, the pagan aristocracy had hopes of better treatment from Stilicho. On account of all these reasons, the triumphant Caesar was received at Rome with delirious joy.
The Court, upon leaving Ravenna, had crossed the Apennines. A halt was called on the banks of the Clitumnus, where in ancient times the great white herds were found which were sacrificed at the Capitol during a triumph. But the gods of the land had fallen; there would be no opiman bull this time on their altars. The pagans felt bitter about it.
Thence, by Narnia and the Tiber valley, they made their way down into the plain. The measured step of the legions rang upon the large flags of the Flaminian way. They crossed the Mulvius bridge -- and old Rome rose like a new city. In anticipation of a siege, the regent had repaired the Aurelian wall. The red bricks of the enclosure and the fresh mason-work of the towers gleamed in the sun. Finally, striking into the Via lata, the procession marched to the Palatine.
The crowd was packed in this long, narrow street, and overflowed into the nearest alleys. Women, elaborately dressed, thronged the balconies, and even the terraces of the palace. All at once the people remarked that the Senate was not walking before the Imperial chariot. Stilicho, who wished to conciliate their good graces, had, contrary to custom, dispensed them from marching on foot before the conqueror. People talked with approval of this wily measure in which they saw a promise of new liberties. But applause and enthusiastic cheers greeted the young Honorius as he passed by, sharing with Stilicho the honour of the triumphal car.
The unequalled splendour of his trabea, of which the embroideries disappeared under the number and flash of colour of the jewels, left the populace gaping. The diadem, a masterpiece of goldsmith's work, pressed heavily on his temples. Emerald pendants twinkled on each side of his neck, which, as it was rather fat, with almost feminine curves, suggested at once to the onlookers a comparison with Bacchus. They found he had an agreeable face, and even a soldierly air with his square shoulders and stocky neck. Matrons gazed with tender eyes on this Caesar of nineteen, who had, at that time, a certain beauty, and the brilliance, so to speak, of youth. This degenerate Spaniard, who was really a crowned eunuch, and was to spend his life in the society of the palace eunuchs and die of dropsy -- this son of Theodosius was just then fond of violent exercise, of hunting and horses. But he was even now becoming ponderous with unhealthy fat. His build and bloated flesh gave those who saw him at a distance a false notion of his strength. The Romans were most favourably impressed by him, especially the young men.
But the army, the safeguard of the country, was perhaps even more admired than the Emperor. The legions, following the ruler, had almost deserted the capital. The flower of the troops were almost unknown there. In consequence, the march past of the cavalry was quite a new sight for the people. A great murmur of admiration sounded as the cataphracti appeared, gleaming in the coats of mail which covered them from head to foot. Upon their horses, caparisoned in defensive armour, they looked like equestrian, statues -- like silver horsemen on bronze horses. Childish cries greeted each draconarius as he marched by carrying his ensign -- a dragon embroidered on a long piece of cloth which flapped in the wind. And the crowd pointed at the crests of the helmets plumed with peacock feathers, and the scarfs of scarlet silk flowing over the camber of the gilded cuirasses....
The military show poured into the Forum, swept up the Via Sacra, and when it had passed under the triumphal arches of the old emperors, halted at the Palace of Septimus Severus. In the Stadium, the crowd awaited Honorius. When he appeared on the balcony of the Imperial box, wild cheering burst out on all the rows of seats. The Emperor, diadem on head, bowed to the people. Upon that the cheers became a tempest. Rome did not know how to express her happiness at having at last got her master back.
On the eve of the worst catastrophes she had this supreme day of glory, of desperate pride, of unconquerable faith in her destiny. The public frenzy encouraged them in the maddest hopes. The poet Claudian, who had followed the Court, became the mouthpiece of these perilous illusions. "Arise!" he cried to Rome, "I prithee arise, O venerable queen! Trust in the goodwill of the gods. O city, fling away the mean fears of age, thou who art immortal as the heavens!..."
For all that, the Barbarian danger continued to threaten. The victory of Pollentia, which, moreover, was not a complete victory, had settled nothing. Alaric was in flight in the Alps, but he kept his eye open for a favourable chance to fall back upon Italy and wrench concessions of money and honours from the Court of Ravenna. Supported by his army of mercenaries and adventurers in the pay of the Empire like himself, his dealings with Honorius were a kind of continual blackmail. If the Imperial Government refused to pay the sums which he protested it owed him for the maintenance of his troops, he would pay himself by force. Rome, where fabulous riches had accumulated for so many centuries, was an obvious prey for him and his men. He had coveted it for a long time; and to get up his courage for this daring exploit, as well as to work upon his soldiers, he pretended that he had a mission from Heaven to chastise and destroy the new Babylon. In his Pannonian forests it would seem he had heard mysterious voices which said to him: "Advance, and thou shalt destroy the city!"
This leader of clans had nothing of the conqueror about him. He understood that he was in no wise cut out to wear the purple; he himself felt the Barbarian's cureless inferiority. But he also felt that neither was he born to obey. If he asked for the title of Prefect of the City, and if he persisted in offering his services to the Empire, it was as a means to get the upper hand of it more surely. Repulsed, disdained by the Court, he tried to raise himself in his own eyes and in the eyes of the common people by giving himself the airs of an instrument of justice, a man designed by fate, who marches blindly to a terrible purpose indicated by the divine wrath. It often happened that he was duped by his own mummery. This turbid Barbarian soul was prone to the most superstitious terrors.
Notwithstanding his rodomontades, it is certain that in his heart he was scared by Rome. He hardly dared to attack it. In the first place, it was not at all a convenient operation for him. His army of mercenaries had no proper implements to undertake the siege of this huge city, of which the defence lines were thrown out in so wide a perimeter. He had to come back to it twice, before he could make up his mind to invest it seriously. The first time, in 408, he was satisfied with starving the Romans by cutting off the food supply. He had pitched his camp on the banks of the Tiber in such a way as to capture the shipping between the capital and the great store-houses built near the mouth of the river. From the ramparts, the Romans could see the Barbarian soldiers moving about, with their sheepskin coats dyed to a crude red. Panic-stricken, the aristocracy fled to its villas in Campania, or Sicily, or Africa. They took with them whatever they were able to carry. They sought refuge in the nearest islands, even in Sardinia and Corsica, despite their reputation for unhealthiness. They even hid among the rocks of the seashore. The terror was so great that the Senate agreed to everything demanded by Alaric. He was paid an enormous indemnity which he claimed as a condition of his withdrawal.
The following year he used the same method of intimidation to force on the people an emperor he had chosen, and to get conferred on him the title of Prefect of the City which he had desired so long. Finally, in the year 410, he struck the supreme blow.
The Barbarian knew what he was about, and that he did not risk much in blockading Rome. Famine would open the gates to him sooner or later. All who were able had left the city, especially the rich. There was no garrison to defend it. Only a lazy populace remained behind the walls, unused to arms, and still more enfeebled by long starvation. And yet this wretched and decimated population, in an outburst of patriotism, resisted with desperate energy. The siege was long. Doubtless it began before the spring; it ended only at the end of the summer. In the night of the twenty-fourth of August, 410, amid the glare of lightning and crashes of thunder, Alaric entered Rome by the Salarian gate. It is certain that he only managed it even then by treachery. The prey was handed to him.
The sack of Rome seems to have lasted for three days and three nights. Part of the town was burned. The conquered people underwent all the horrors which accompany such events -- violent and stupid destruction, rapes, murders of individuals, wholesale slaughter, torture, and mutilation. But in reality the Barbarians only wanted the Roman gold. They acted like perfect highway robbers. If they tortured their victims without distinction of age or sex, it was to pluck the secret of their treasure-houses out of them. It is even said that in these conditions the Roman avarice produced some admirable examples of firmness. Some let themselves be tortured to their last gasp rather than reveal where their treasures were hid. At last, when Alaric decided that his army was gorged enough with spoil, he gave the order to evacuate the city, and took to the roads with his baggage-waggons full.
Let us be careful not to judge these doings after our modern notions. The capture of Rome by Alaric was not a national disaster. It was plundering on a huge scale. The Goth had no thought at all of destroying the Empire. He was only a mercenary in rebellion -- an ambitious mercenary, no doubt -- but, above all, a looter.
As a consequence of this attack on the Eternal City, one after another caught the disease of plunder, which contaminated even the functionaries and the subjects of Rome. Amid the general anarchy, where impunity seemed certain, nobody restrained himself any longer. In Africa especially, where the old instinct of piracy is always half-awake, they applied themselves to ransack the fugitive Romans and Italians. Many rich people were come there, seeking a place of safety in the belief that they would be more secure when they had put the sea between themselves and the Barbarians. The report of their riches had preceded them, exaggerated out of all measure by popular rumour. Among them were mentioned patricians such as the Anicii, whose property was so immense and their palaces so splendid that they could not find purchasers. These multi-millionaires in flight were a miraculous windfall for the country. They were bled without mercy.
Quicker than any one else, the military governor of Africa, Count Heraclianus, was on the spot to pick the pockets of the Italian immigrants. No sooner were they off the boat than he had very distinguished ladies seized, and only released them when he had extorted a large ransom. He sold those unable to pay to the Greek and Syrian slave-merchants who provided human flesh for the Oriental harems. When the example came from such a height, the subordinates doubtless said to themselves that they would be very wrong to have the least shame. From one end of the province to the other, everybody struggled to extract as much as possible from the unfortunate fugitives. Augustin's own parishioners at Hippo undertook to tear a donation from one of those gorgeous Anicii, whose lands stretched further than a kite could fly -- from Pinian, the husband of St. Melania the younger. They wanted to force him to be ordained priest in spite of himself, which, as has been explained, involved the handing over of his goods to the Catholic community. Augustin, who opposed this, had to give in to the crowd. There was almost a riot in the basilica.
Such were the far-off reverberations of the capture of Rome by Alaric. Carthaginians and Numidians pillaged the Romans just like the Barbarians.
Now, how did it come about that this monstrous loot took on before the eyes of contemporaries the magnitude of a world-catastrophe? For really nothing was utterly lost. The Empire remained standing. After Alaric's retreat, the Romans had come back to their city and they worked to build up the ruins. Ere long, the populace were crying out loud that if the circus and amphitheatre games were given back to them, they would look upon the descent of the Goths as a bad dream.
It is no less certain that this sensational occurrence had struck the whole Mediterranean world into a perfect stupor. It seized upon the imaginations of all. The idea that Rome could not be taken, that it was integral and almost sacred, had such a hold on people's minds, that they refused to credit the sinister news. Nobody reflected that the sack of Rome by the Barbarians should have been long ago foreseen -- that Rome, deprived of a garrison, abandoned by the Imperial army, was bound to attract the covetousness of the Goths, and that the pillage of a place without defence, already enfeebled by famine, was not a very glorious feat, very difficult, or very extraordinary. People only saw the brutal fact: the Eternal City had been captured and burned by the mercenaries. All were under the influence of the shock caused by the narratives of the refugees. In one of his sermons, Augustin has transmitted to us an echo of the general panic:
"Horrible things," said he, "have been told us. There have been ruins, and fires, and rapine, and murder, and torture. That is true; we have heard it many times; we have shuddered at all this disaster; we have often wept, and we have hardly been able to console ourselves."
This capture of Rome was plainly a terrible warning for the future. But party spirit strangely exaggerated the importance and meaning of the calamity. For pagans and Christians alike it became a subject for speeches, a commonplace of religious polemic. Both saw the event as a manifestation of the wrath of Heaven.
"While we sacrificed to our gods," the pagan said, "Rome was standing, Rome was happy. Now that our sacrifices are forbidden, you see what has become of Rome...."
And they went about repeating that Christianism was responsible for the ruin of the Empire. On their side, the Christians answered: In the first place, Rome has not fallen: it is always standing. It has been only chastised, and this happened because it is still half pagan. By this frightful punishment (and they heightened the description of the horrors committed), God has given it a warning. Let it be converted, let it return to the virtues of its ancestors, and it will become again the mistress of nations.
There is what Augustin and the bishops said. Still, the flock of the faithful were only half convinced. It was all well enough to remonstrate to them that the Christians of Rome, and even a good number of pagans, had been spared at the name of Christ, and that the Barbarian leader had bestowed a quite special protection and respect upon the basilicas of the holy apostles; it was impossible to prevent their thinking that many Christians had perished in the sack of the city, that consecrated virgins had experienced the last outrages, and that, as a matter of fact, all the inhabitants had been robbed of their property.... Was it thus that God protected His chosen? What advantage was there in being Christian if they had the same treatment as the idolaters?
This state of mind became extremely favourable for paganism to come back again on the offensive. Since the very hard laws of Theodosius, which forbade the worship of the ancient gods, even within the house, the pagans had not overlooked any chance to protest against the Imperial severity. At Carthage there were always fights in the streets between pagans and Christians, not to say riots. In the colony of Suffetula, sixty Christians had been massacred. The year before the capture of Rome, there had been trouble with the pagans at Guelma. Houses belonging to the Church were burned, a monk killed in a brawl. Whenever the Government inspection relaxed, or the political situation appeared favourable, the pagans hurried to proclaim their belief. Only just lately, in Rome beleaguered by Alaric, the new consul, Tertullus, had thought fit to revive the old customs. Before assuming office, he studied gravely the sacred fowls in their cages, traced circles in the sky with the augur's wand, and marked the flight of birds. Besides, a pagan oracle circulated persistently among the people, promising that after a reign of three hundred and sixty-five years Christianity would be conquered. The centuries of the great desolation were fulfilled; the era of revenge was about to begin for the outcast gods.
These warlike symptoms did not escape Augustin's vigilance. His indignation no longer arose only from the fact that paganism was so slow in dying; he was now afraid that the feebleness of the Empire might allow it to take on an appearance of life. It must be ended, as Donatism had been ended. The old apostle was summoned to a new campaign, and in it he would spend the best of his strength to the eve of his death.