By the time of Alaric’s Sack of Rome in 410, the Roman Empire had been divided in two. The Western Roman Empire ruled the tumultuous territory to the west of Greece, while the Eastern Roman Empire enjoyed the comparative peace and prosperity of the east.
In the early 400s the Eastern Empire was wealthy and largely intact; the Western Roman Empire, however, was a shadow of its former self.
Barbarian forces had taken control of most its provinces and its armies were largely composed of mercenaries. Western emperors were weak, as they had neither the military nor economic power to protect themselves.
Here is what happened to the Roman emperors during and after the Sack of Rome:
The Sack of Rome in 410
By the time it was sacked, Rome had not been the capital of the Western Empire for over a century.
The ‘eternal city’ was unruly and difficult to defend, so in 286 Mediolanum (Milan) became the imperial capital, and in 402 the emperor moved to Ravenna. The city of Ravenna was protected by marshland and strong defences, so it was the safest base for the imperial court. Nevertheless, Rome still remained the symbolic centre of the empire.
Honorius, emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 410, had a turbulent reign. His empire was fragmented by mutinous generals and incursions from barbarian factions like the Visigoths.
Honorius had come to power at the age of just 8 years old; at first he was protected by his father-in-law, a general called Stilicho. However, after Honorius killed Stilicho he was vulnerable to Rome’s enemies like the Visigoths.
In 410 King Alaric and his Visigoths army entered Rome and plundered the city for three whole days. It was the first time in 800 years a foreign force had captured the city, and the cultural impact of the sack was enormous.
The aftermath of the Sack of Rome
The Sack of Rome astonished occupants of both halves of the Roman Empire. It showed the weakness of the Western Empire, and both Christians and Pagans alike pointed to it as an indication of divine anger.
Honorius was less severely affected. One account describes how he was informed of the destruction of the city, safe at his court in Ravenna. Honorius was only shocked because he thought the messenger was referring to the death of his pet chicken, Roma.
Despite the pillaging of its symbolic capital, the Western Roman Empire limped on for another 66 years. Some of its emperors reasserted imperial control in the west, but most oversaw the empire’s continuing collapse.
Fighting Huns, Vandals and usurpers: the Western Roman Emperors from 410 to 461
Honorius’ weak rule continued until 425 when he was replaced by the young Valentinian III. Valentinian’s unstable empire was initially ruled by his mother, Galla Placidia. Even after he came of age Valentinian was really protected by a powerful general: a man named Flavius Aetius. Under Aetius, Rome’s armies even managed to repel Attila the Hun.
Not long after the Hunnic threat had subsided, Valentinian was assassinated. In 455 he was succeeded by Petronius Maximus, an emperor who ruled for only 75 days. Maximus was killed by an angry mob when news spread that the Vandals were sailing to attack Rome.
After Maximus’ death, the Vandals viciously sacked Rome for a second time. Their extreme violence during this pillaging of the city gave rise to the term ‘vandalism’. Maximus was briefly followed as emperor by Avitus, who was deposed in 457 by Majorian, his general.
The last great attempt to restore the Western Roman Empire to glory was made by Majorian. He launched a series of successful campaigns in Italy and Gaul against the Vandals, Visigoths and Burgundians. After subduing these tribes he headed to Spain and defeated the Suebi who had occupied the former Roman province.
Majorian also planned a number of reforms to help restore the empire’s economic and social problems. He was described by the historian Edward Gibbon as ‘a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species’.
Majorian was eventually killed by one of his Germanic generals, Ricimer. He had conspired with aristocrats who were worried about the impact of Majorian’s reforms.
The decline of the Western Roman Emperors from 461 to 474
After Majorian, the Roman Emperors were mostly puppets of powerful warlords like Ricimer. These warlords could not become emperor themselves as they were of barbaric descent, but ruled the empire through weak Romans. Following his coup against Majorian, Ricimer placed a man named Libius Severus on the throne.
Severus died soon after of natural causes, and Ricimer and the Eastern Roman Emperor crowned Anthemius. A general with a proven battle record, Anthemius worked with Ricimer and the Eastern Emperor to try repel the barbarians threatening Italy. Eventually, after failing to defeat the Vandals and the Visigoths, Anthemius was deposed and killed.
After Anthemius, Ricimer placed a Roman aristocrat called Olybrius on the throne as his puppet. They ruled together for only a few months until they both perished of natural causes. When Ricimer died, his nephew Gundobad inherited his positions and his armies. Gundobad installed a Roman named Glycerius as the nominal emperor of Rome.
The fall of the Western Roman Emperors: Julius Nepos and Romulus Augustus
The Eastern Roman Emperor, Leo I, refused to acknowledge Glycerius as emperor, since he was merely a puppet of Gundobad. Leo I instead sent one of his governors, Julius Nepos to replace Glycerius. Nepos ousted Glycerius, but was very quickly deposed by one of his own generals in 475. This general, Orestes, placed his son on the throne instead.
Orestes’ son was named Flavius Romulus Augustus. He was to be the last Western Roman emperor. Romulus Augustus’ name is probably his most notable aspect: ‘Romulus’ was the legendary founder of Rome, and ‘Augustus’ was the name of Rome’s first emperor. It was a fitting title for Rome’s final ruler.
Romulus was little more than a proxy for his father, who was captured and killed by barbarian mercenaries in 476. The leader of these mercenaries, Odoacer, quickly marched upon Ravenna, Romulus’ capital.
Odoacer’s forces besieged Ravenna and defeated the remnants of the Roman army who garrisoned the city. Only 16 years old, Romulus was forced to abdicate his throne to Odoacer, who spared his life out of pity. This was the end of 1,200 years of Roman rule in Italy.
The Eastern Roman Emperors
Romulus’ abdication marked the end of the Western Roman Empire. It closed a chapter in history which saw Rome as a kingdom, a republic and an empire.
However, the Eastern Roman Emperors continued to influence politics in Italy, and occasionally attempted conquests of the former empire in the west. Emperor Justinian I (482-527), via his famous adjutant Belisarius, successfully re-established Roman control across the Mediterranean, capturing Italy, Sicily, North Africa and parts of Spain.
Ultimately, the Roman state and its emperors continued for another 1,000 years after Odoacer seized control of Italy. The Eastern Roman Empire, which was later known as the Byzantine Empire, ruled from their capital at Constantinople until it was sacked by the Ottomans in 1453.