Vandals Sack Rome: Decline of Western Empire Accelerates

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Vandals Sack Rome: Decline of Western Empire Accelerates

"Sack of Rome" by Karl Briullov (c. 1833-1836)
[King Genseric on black horse left of center, Roman Empress Licinia kneeling at center]
Currently in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 3, AD 455

Today's event is not so much a military as a political event. Rome, the "Eternal City" was crumbling physically and morally; if one event could be said to have pinpointed the final decline of the empire, the sack of Rome by the Vandals would be that event.


The Western Roman Empire was shrinking in the mid-fifth century AD, the emperors were politically and morally bankrupt, and the once-feared Roman army was a shadow of its former self. Roving tribes of barbarians from north of the Danube and east of Rhine rivers had occupied large portions of the Western Empire. Iberia (modern-day Portugal and Spain) had been taken over by the Visigoths; Germanic Angles, Jutes, and Saxons were swarming into the British Isles; the Burgundians established themselves in southeastern Gaul (France); Frankish tribes were infiltrating northern and central Gaul; and the Ostrogoths settled in the old Roman province of Pannonia (over the territory of the present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Vandal tribal confederation had moved through Gaul, settled for a time in Iberia, and was finally forced to take ships to the Roman province of Africa (present-day Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia) in 430. Despite the small size of this barbarian horde (said to contain perhaps 80,000 people with about 20,000 to 30,000 warriors all told), they took over the area of the Western Empire that was Rome's breadbasket. In addition, the Vandals allied themselves with the indigenous Berber tribes which had opposed the Roman occupation of North Africa for 500 years (since the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC). The Western Empire recognized the Vandals' role in Africa by a treaty of 435. In the next decade, Vandal fleets invaded and acquired Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands.

Invasions of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, AD 100-500
Invasions of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, AD 100-500

Politics and the Murder of the "Last of the Romans"

Flavius Aëtius commanded the combined Roman-Visigothic army that blunted the Hunnic invasion of Gaul in 451. Over the next three years, Aëtius became something of a power broker in the crumbling Western Empire. In 453, Aëtius arranged the betrothal of his son Gaudentius to Placidia, daughter of the reigning emperor Valentinian III. The emperor feared that Gaudentius was fishing for the imperial throne – through his father's machinations – and Valentinian began to plot Aëtius's death. On September 21, 454, when at court in Ravenna delivering a financial account, Valentinian accused the patrician of treason, rushed from his throne, and personally killed Aëtius. [A Gallo-Roman poet and diplomat of this time, Sidonius Apollinaris, is credited with this observation to Valentinian: "I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left."]

Powers Booth (r) as Aëtius in 2001 TV miniseries Attila; Alice Krige (l) as the Empress Placidia, mother of Emperor Valentinia (Image courtesy of
Powers Booth (r) as Aëtius in 2001 TV miniseries Attila
Alice Krige (l) as the Empress Placidia, mother of Emperor Valentinian
(Image courtesy of

About six month later, March 16, 454, as Valentinian was going to archery practice, two of Aëtius's former bodyguards attacked and killed the emperor. Their motive is generally put down to revenge for their dead commander; however, some historians think a rival of Valentinian, senator Petronius Maximus, egged them on to avenge the rape of Maximus's wife by Valentinian. The next day Maximus was proclaimed emperor.

After gaining control of the palace, Maximus consolidated his hold on power by immediately marrying Licinia Eudoxia, the widow of Valentinian. She only married him reluctantly, suspecting that in fact he had been involved in the murder of her late husband; and indeed Maximus treated Valentinian's assassins with considerable favor. The eastern court at Constantinople refused to recognize his accession, so to further secure his position, Maximus quickly appointed Avitus as Master of Soldiers (magister militum), and sent him on a mission to Toulouse to gain the support of the Visigoths.

In a much more dramatic action, Valentinian cancelled the betrothal of Licinia's daughter, Eudocia, to Huneric, the son of the Vandal king Genseric, which had been arranged by the late emperor Valentinian to seal a treaty of 442 between the two nations. This act infuriated the Vandal king, who viewed the treaty between the two nations as abrogated. With the turmoil in the Western Empire, Genseric began preparations to invade Italy. Additionally, the empress Licinia sent a despairing appeal to the Vandal court for help; this only confirmed Genseric's course of action. The entire Vandal fleet – which was the scourge of the Mediterranean – was prepared, nearly every Vandal warlord and warrior was mobilized, and thousands of Berber auxiliaries were enlisted. On May 31, 455, the Vandal fleet made landfall on Italy, probably at Portus, the main port of Rome.

Sack of Rome

When news reached Rome of the arrival of the Vandals, many senators and other nobles fled the city, taking with them only what they could carry. Among that crowd of refugees was the emperor Petronius Maximus. He did not get far, however. One historian claims he was killed by Ursus, a Burgundian soldier in his bodyguard, while another chronicler said Maximus was stoned to death by the Roman mob. The body of the emperor – who had only reigned about 76 days – was then torn apart by the mob and the pieces thrown into the Tiber River.

Three days later, the Vandal army arrived at the Porta Portuensis, intent upon the destruction of the greatest city of western Europe at that time. [A side note: Rome was no longer the actual capital of the empire, as that honor had devolved to the city of Ravenna, near Venice. Still, Rome was the psychological heart of the empire, and its fall would be a blow to all civilized citizens of the nation.]

The barbarians had an unusual reception committee: a band of Roman clergymen, headed by Pope Leo I (later given the sobriquet "the Great"). Pope Leo begged Genseric not to destroy the Rome or to murder its people (the population of Rome had declined over the previous 400 years, but modern historians estimate that 500,000 people still lived there). Leo said that, if the Vandals did not murder anyone, burn any buildings, or torture anyone to learn of hiding places for valuables, they could take any booty they could carry. With a carte blanche to steal and plunder, King Genseric agreed to Pope Leo's request. All of the city's gates were thrown open, and an army of 10,000 to 20,000 Vandals and Berbers entered the "Eternal City."

"Pope Leo the Great persuades Genseric, prince of Vandals, to abstain from sacking Rome"; Miniature created c. 1475 illuminated by Maïtre François; Currently in the National Library of the Netherlands
"Pope Leo the Great persuades Genseric, prince of Vandals, to abstain from sacking Rome"
Miniature created c. 1475 illuminated by Maïtre François
Currently in the National Library of the Netherlands

For the next 14 days, Rome was prostrate, at the mercy of Germanic barbarians and their North African auxiliaries. Gold, silver, jewels, statuary, and anything perceived as valuable were taken. The Vandals even stripped the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the greatest temple in the Roman world,of its treasures. The marauders even took half its gold-chased copper roof, believing it was solid gold. Every church in the city was emptied of its treasures. In an interesting twist to history, the Vandals took back to North Africa the loot of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple taken by Emperor Titus in the year 71.

The Vandals and their allies essentially kept their agreement with Pope Leo; there are no records of any Roman death during the sack. There were, however, a large number of Romans who were taken as slaves back to Africa. The Vandals had taken great care to select the most skilled craftsmen, administrators, and labors among the captives, as well as any Roman nobles who were too slow to flee. Also among the captured were Empress Licinia Eudoxia, her two daughters Eudocia and Placidia, and Gaudentius, son of Aëtius. The city of Rome escaped wholesale destruction (though one Byzantine chronicler states that one church in the city was burned). The Vandal fleet arrived back at it capital of Carthage sometime in the end of June. The only major casualty was the single boat which was carrying the looted statues.

"The Sack of Rome by the Vandals" by Heinrich Leutemann; Color steel engraving, produced between 1860 and 1880
"The Sack of Rome by the Vandals" by Heinrich Leutemann
Color steel engraving, produced between 1860 and 1880


"The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken." These words of St. Jerome – written after the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410 – could easily have been applied to the city in 455. These sackings of the city astonished all the Roman world. Many inhabitants fled as the city no longer could be supplied with grain from Africa from the mid-fifth century onward. At the end of the fifth century Rome's population may have been less than 50,000.

Footnote #1: Upon returning to North Africa, Genseric gave the oldest princess, Eudocia, in marriage to his son Huneric. The former empress Eudoxia and the younger daughter were held as hostages, treating them with great honor. After seven years, the mother and daughter were sent to Constantinople, after the repeated requests of the Eastern emperor Leo.

Footnote #2: By 455, Rome was already in a steep physical decline. Many monuments had been destroyed by the citizens themselves, who stripped stones from closed temples and other precious buildings, and even burned statues to make lime for their personal use. In addition, most of the increasing number of churches were built in this way. For example, the first Saint Peter's Basilica was erected using spoils from the abandoned Circus of Nero. This "self-eating" attitude was a constant feature of Rome until the Renaissance. Imperial edicts from the fourth century against stripping of stones, and especially marble, were common, but the need for their repetition shows that they were ineffective.

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<b> This is very helpful </b>


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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.