Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
H. E. Marshall

The Barbarians Rule in Rome

R OME had been saved from the Hun (see Chapter I) only to fall into the hands of another barbarian foe. From Andalusia the Vandals had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, overrun the northern shores of Africa, and, under their savage king, Gaiseric, made themselves complete masters of that Roman province. Up and down the Mediterranean they sailed in their pirate ships, plundering the rich and fruitful islands, causing peaceful traders to tremble and flee before them. Their sole joy was in plunder and bloodshed, and they cared not where they went in quest of it.

The Vandals: The March of Gaiseric

"I sail to the cities of men with whom God is angry," said Gaiseric. And from his actions it would appear that he thought God was angry with all who crossed his path. So, having robbed and wasted many a fair city of the Mediterranean, Gaiseric and his Vandals one day appeared before Rome. The emperor and the people fled, and the walls were left defenceless. But as the Vandals advanced the gates were thrown open. It was, however, no armed force which issued forth, but a company of priests.

Once again Leo sought to save the imperial city. Unarmed save by his dauntless courage, with the Cross carried before him, and his clergy following after, he advanced to meet the foe. But this time he could not altogether prevail. The Vandals were bent on booty. Booty they would have. Leo could only wring from their chief a promise that there should be no bloodshed, no burning of houses, no torture of the defenceless. With that he was fain to be content, and the sack of Rome began.

For fourteen days the pillage lasted. Then, having stripped the city of its treasures, the robbers sailed away in their richly laden galleys, carrying with them thousands of Roman citizens as slaves.

The Western Empire was now almost entirely in the hands of the Teutonic tribes which had overrun its borders. But still, for twenty-one years, it lingered on in death. Then the end came.

The last emperor of Rome bore the same name as its founder—Romulus. He was, however, only a feeble, beautiful boy of fourteen, so he was called Romulus Augustulus or the Little Emperor. He was deposed by Odoacer the German, who was the first barbarian to sit upon the throne of the Cæsars. Odoacer, however, did not take to himself the title of emperor. For the Roman Empire in the east still existed, a Roman emperor still reigned in Constantinople. To this emperor then, Odoacer sent the purple robe and the royal diadem, with a letter, in which he declared that one emperor was enough both for East and West, and demanding the right to rule in Italy as patrician or king.

Theodoric and the Ostrogoths

At first, when the emperor, Zeno, received Odoacer's letter he was merely angry that this bold barbarian had dared to usurp the throne of the Cæsars. Then he felt rather pleased at the idea of being sole emperor. So he left Odoacer alone, and for thirteen years he reaped the reward of his boldness, and ruled Rome in peace. Then another barbarian, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, turned his eyes on Italy. He desired to conquer it, and the emperor did nothing to restrain him. For Theodoric and his Goths were dangerous friends and troublesome neighbours, and it seemed better to the emperor that they should harass the Western Empire, over which he had but a shadowy right, than that they should turn their swords against him.

So once again a great barbarian force marched on Italy. This time they came not as an army but as a nation, bringing their wives, and children and household goods with them. For the Goths had heard much of the beauty and the riches of Rome, and they meant to abide there. Odoacer, however, did not lightly yield what his sword had won, and for more than four years he fought for his kingdom. At length, however, even his stubborn will gave way, and at Ravenna he surrendered to Theodoric.

Theodoric promised Odoacer his life, promised even that he should rule with equal power with himself. But he did not keep his promise, for he well knew that two kings could not rule in Italy, and secretly he resolved to put Odoacer to death.

Ten days, therefore, after Theodoric had entered Ravenna in triumph he invited his fallen rival to a feast. As Odoacer neared the banqueting hall two men suddenly threw themselves at his feet, praying him to grant them a boon. In the fervour of their entreaties they seized his hands and held them fast. As they did so armed men, in the midst of whom was Theodoric, drawn sword in hand, surrounded them. Too well Odoacer knew that his last hour had come. "O God," he cried, "where art Thou?"

He spoke no more. For Theodoric's sword descended, cleaving his helpless enemy from neck to thigh. Even Theodoric himself was amazed at the blow. "Methinks the catiff had never a bone in his body!" he cried, with a savage laugh, as he turned away.

Thus Theodoric the Goth began his reign in Italy, and save this one black deed of treachery there is little to record against him in his reign of more than thirty years. He was a barbarian, but with the conquest of Italy he stayed his sword, seeking no further conquests, but only the good of the conquered people.

He had no easy task, for he had two utterly different peoples to rule over, Romans and Goths. He was just, however, and wise, and soon he was loved by both peoples. He preserved many of the old Roman laws, and although he was so ignorant himself that he could only with difficulty trace his own name, he encouraged learning in others. He made friendly alliances with all the peoples around him, and so that these should be lasting and binding he arranged marriages between his own family and those of the neighbouring princes, thus taking a precaution of which the world has not yet learned the uselessness and danger.

Theodoric, indeed, seems to have been for these early days a model prince. He was, we are told, "A lover of manufactures, and a great restorer of cities. . . . Merchants from other countries flocked to his dominions. For so great was the order which he made there that if any one left gold or silver at his farm it was as safe as if it had been within a walled city. This is proved by the fact that he never made gates for any city in Italy, and those which were there already were never closed."

It seemed as if Theodoric had founded a new dynasty in Italy, under which those two races, from which the modern civilization of Europe was to spring, would be united. But that was not to be. After a reign of nearly thirty-three years he died, leaving his kingdom to the rule of a woman and a child, and all the miseries attendant.