But thou, imperial City! thou hast stood
In greatness once, in sackcloth now and tears,
A Mighty name, for evil or for good,
Even in the loneness of thy widowed years:
Thou that hast gazed, as the world hurried by,
Upon its headlong course with sad prophetic eye.
I f an Italian country boy had been taken to visit Rome fifteen hundred years ago, he would have found much to see. There were temples and theatres and baths. There were aqueducts, sometimes with arches one hundred feet high, stretching far out into the country to bring pure water to the city. There was an open space known as the Forum, where the people came together for public meetings, and in this space were beautiful pillars and arches and statues of famous Romans. Around the Forum were palaces and temples and the Senate House; and directly in front of the Senate House was a platform on which speakers stood when they wished to address the people. The platform was called the rostrum, which is a Latin word, meaning the beak of a warship, because it was adorned with the beaks of ships which the Romans had captured. Another open space was the great race-course, the Circus Maximus, in which 250,000 people could sit and watch leaping, wrestling, boxing, foot-races, and especially the famous four-horse chariot races. There was the Coliseum, too, where gladiators, generally captives or slaves, fought with one another or with wild beasts.
The Roman streets were narrow, and they seemed still narrower because many houses were built with their upper stories projecting over the lower; but in those narrow streets there was always something of interest. Sometimes it was a wedding procession with torches and songs and the music of the flute. Sometimes it was a funeral train with not only the friends of the dead man, but also trumpeters and pipers. In the long line walked hired actors wearing waxen masks made to imitate the faces of the dead person's ancestors. Early in the morning, one could see crowds of clients, each one hastening to the home of his patron, some wealthy man who was expected to give him either food or money.
Rome was built upon seven hills, and most of these men of wealth lived either on the Palatine or the Esquiline Hill. After a patron had received his clients, he ate a light meal and then attended to his business, if he had any. About noon he ate another meal and had a nap. When he awoke, he played ball or took some other exercise. Then came his bath; and this was quite a lengthy affair, for there was not only hot and cold bathing, but there was rubbing and scraping and anointing. At the public baths were hot rooms and cold rooms and rooms where friends might sit and talk together, or lie on couches and rest. Dinner, the principal meal of the day, came at two or three o'clock. Oysters were often served first, together with radishes, lettuce, sorrel, and pickled cabbage. These were to increase the keenness of the appetite. Then came fish, flesh, and fowl, course after course. Next came cakes and fruits, and last, wine followed, mixed with water and spices. The formal banquets were much more elaborate than this, for a good host must load his table with as many kinds of expensive food as possible; and a guest who wished to show his appreciation must eat as much as he could. The whole business of a feast was eating, and there was seldom any witty conversation. No one sung any songs or told any merry stories.
Such was the life of the wealthy Romans. Moreover, they kept hosts of slaves to save themselves from every exertion. Their ancestors had been brave, patriotic folk who loved their country and thought it was an honour to fight for it; but these idle, luxurious people were not willing to give up their comfort and leisure and to enter the army. Hired soldiers could defend their fatherland, they thought.
The time had come when Rome needed to be defended. In the early days, it had been only a tiny settlement, but it had grown in power till the Romans ruled all Europe south of the Rhine and the Danube, also Asia Minor, Northern Africa, and Britain. Nearly all the people of Europe are thought to have come from Central Asia. One tribe after another moved to the westward from their early home into Europe, and when the hunting and fishing became poor in their new settlements, they went on still farther west. The Celts came first, pushing their way through Central Europe, and finally into France, Spain, and the British Isles. Later, the Latins and Greeks took possession of Southern Europe. Meanwhile the Celts had to move faster than they wished into France, Spain, and Britain, because another race, the Teutons, had followed close behind them, and taken possession of Central Europe. These Teutons, who lived a wild, restless, half-savage life, roamed back and forth between the Danube and the shores of the Baltic Sea. They consisted of many different tribes, but the Romans called them all Germans. For many years the Germans had tried to cross the Danube and the Rhine, and break into the Roman Empire, but the Roman armies had driven them back, and had destroyed their rude villages again and again. Sometimes, however, the Germans were so stubborn in their efforts to get into the empire that the Roman emperors found it convenient to admit certain tribes as allies.
As time went on, a tribe of Teutons called Goths became the most troublesome of all to the Romans. Part of them lived on the shores of the Black Sea, and were called Ostrogoths, or Eastern Goths; while those who lived near the shores of the Danube were called Visigoths, or Western Goths. Toward the end of the fourth century, the Visigoths found themselves between two fires, for another people, the Huns, were driving them into the Roman Empire, and the Romans were driving them back. The Visigoths could not fight both nations, and in despair they sent ambassadors to the Romans. "Let us live on your side of the river," they pleaded. "Give us food, and we will defend the frontier for you." The bargain was made, but it was broken by both parties. It had been agreed that the Goths should give up their arms, but they bribed the Roman officers and kept them. The Romans had promised to furnish food, but they did not keep their word. Hungry warriors with weapons in their hands make fierce enemies. The Goths revolted, and the Roman Emperor was slain.
Alaric at Athens
As the years passed, the Goths grew stronger and the Romans weaker. By and by, a man named Alaric became leader of the Visigoths. He and his followers had fought under Roman commanders. He had been in Italy twice, and he began to wonder whether it would not be possible for him and his brave warriors to fight their way into the heart of the Roman Empire. One night, he dreamed that he was driving a golden chariot through the streets of Rome and that the Roman citizens were thronging about him and shouting, "Hail, O Emperor, hail!" Another time when he was passing by a sacred grove, he heard, or thought he heard, a voice cry, "You will make your way to the city." "The city" meant Rome, of course; and now Alaric called his chief men together and laid his plans before them. First, they would go to Greece, he said. The warlike Goths shouted for joy, for in the cities of Greece were treasures of gold and silver, and these would fall into the hands of the victors. They went on boldly, and before long Alaric and his followers were feasting in Athens, while great masses of treasure were waiting to be distributed among the soldiers. The Greeks had forgotten how brave their ancestors had been, and Alaric had no trouble in sweeping over the country. At last, however, the general Stilicho was sent with troops from Rome; and now Alaric would have been captured or slain if he had not succeeded in slipping away. Before this, the Roman Empire had been divided into two parts, the western and the eastern. The capital of the western part was Rome; that of the eastern was Constantinople.
The young man of eighteen who was emperor in the eastern part of the empire became jealous of Stilicho. "If he wins more victories, he will surely try to make himself emperor," thought the foolish boy; and he concluded that it would be an exceedingly wise move to make Alaric governor of Eastern Illyricum. This was like setting a hungry cat to watch a particularly tempting little mouse; for Illyricum stretched along the Adriatic Sea, and just across the narrow water lay Italy. Of course, after a few years, Alaric set out for Italy. The boy emperor in the western part of the empire ran away as fast as he could go. He would have been captured had not Stilicho appeared. Then Alaric and his warriors held a council. "Shall we withdraw and make sure of the treasure that we have taken, or shall we push on to Rome?" questioned the warriors. "I will find in Italy either a kingdom or a grave," declared the chief; but Stilicho was upon them, and they were obliged to retreat. Then the boy emperor returned to Rome to celebrate the victory and declare that he had never thought of such a thing as being afraid. Nevertheless, he hurried away to a safe fortress again, and left Rome to take care of itself.
A Barbarian Invasion
Alaric waited for six years, but meanwhile he watched everything that went on in Italy. The boy emperor had become a man of twenty-five, but he was as foolish as ever; and now, like the Emperor in the East, he concluded that Stilicho meant to become ruler of the empire, and he murdered the only man who could have protected it.
This was Alaric's opportunity, and he marched straight up to the walls of Rome, shut off food from the city, and commanded it to surrender. The luxurious Romans were indignant that a mere barbarian should think of conquering their city. Even after they were weakened by famine and pestilence, they told Alaric that if he would give them generous terms of surrender, they might yield; "but if not," they said, "sound your trumpets and make ready to meet a countless multitude." Alaric laughed and retorted, "The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed." He would leave Rome, he declared, if they would bring him all the gold and silver of the city. Finally, however, he agreed to accept 5000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4000 robes of silk, 3000 pieces of scarlet cloth, and 3000 pounds of pepper.
Only two years later, Alaric came again, and the proud Romans were ready to do whatever he commanded. This time he put the prefect of the city upon the throne; but a little later he came a third time and encamped before the walls of Rome. The trumpets blew blast after blast, and the invaders poured into the city. Alaric bade his men spare both churches and people; but the Goths killed all who opposed them, or whom they suspected of concealing their wealth. Then they went away loaded with gold and silver and silk and jewels. They were in no haste to leave Italy with its wine and oil and cattle and corn; and, moreover, Alaric was not satisfied with sacking Rome; he meant to get possession of Sicily and then make an expedition to Africa. Suddenly all these plans came to an end, for he was taken ill and died. His followers turned aside a little river from its channel, wrapped the body of their dead leader in the richest of the Roman robes, and made his grave in the river bed. They heaped around it the most splendid of their treasures, and then turned back the waters of the stream to flow over it for ever. Finally, lest the grave should become known and be robbed or treated with dishonor, they put to death the multitude of captives whom they had forced to do this work.