August 23rd 410 AD. Alaric The Goth is at the gates of Rome. Tomorrow, the world will end. Rome at this time had for 800 years represented the highest ideals of Western Civilization. They had cities and taxation systems, and international trade and shipping and manufacturing and coliseums and running water and plumbing. The Roman reach was almost global. The art, the history, it was the gleaming prize of the West. South of the Rhine, Rome held its own frontiers fairly well. Beyond the Rhine were the unwashed masses of tribes. History paints them as dirty, illiterate, and warlike. For some barbarians this was true. However for the Goths, it was not. The Goths had fine arts, math, architecture, Christianity, metal-working, shipbuilding and organized warfare. In fact, Alaric was not only a Christian and a Roman citizen, he was a senior military commander in the Eastern Roman Empire.
In fact Gaul had been thoroughly Romanized by 410 AD. It had towns and tax revenues and armies and shipping and trade. The armies were organized into maniples and legions and auxiliaries just like the vast Roman army. In fact, by 410 AD, a good portion of the Roman Army was comprised of Germanic Romans. However further north, across the Rhine, well, that might as well have been another world. There were no towns. No technology, no written language; just really intimidating and ferocious tribesmen.
For a Roman, waking up and seeing 40,000 Goths surrounding you city was the most frightening thing in the world. The Romans feared the tribes and inculcated that terrible fear into their children. All because of a particularly spooky incident that happened 400 years earlier.
IN 9 AD Emperor Punlius Quincillus Varus took three Roman Legions into Teuterborg Forest across the Rhine to quell an insurgency. Arminius, another Germanic tribesman who became a Roman military leader betrayed Varus. Arminius had fought the Romans at the battle of Elapine. But he was taken prisoner and later became a Roman officer eventually leading Roman troops in Hungary. The insurgency across the Rhine was a ruse created by Arminius; a trap to stop the Romans incursion into Germania. Arminius, or Herman The German, arranged for an ambush that in one day, destroyed one tenth of the standing Roman Army including armies from both east and western Roman Empires. Arminius was a rock star Barbarian and he made a pact with the Cherusci, the Marci, the Bucteri and other tribes that were defeated by interloping Roman Emperors in an act of vengeance no one expected after all this time. Varus was a brutal Emperor who incited the very hatred that backfired on him. In Syria, after defeating locals, he crucified 2000 people just to be spiteful. Varus was also something of a robber baron, and the Germanic tribesmen he conquered and plundered hated his heavy hand.
This ambush was an act of vengeance that had been boiling for generations. In fact, The Roman’s defeat was so complete, it was six years before the Romans sent an expedition to find the fate of the Roman legionnaires who marched across the Rhine. Arminius had well armed and trained Germanic tribesmen attack Romans who were not yet assembled into phalanxes, and became trapped between a boggy moor an prepared walls surrounding a killing field.
The Romans at the Teuterborg Forest were given no quarter. The tribesmen had nailed Roman heads to trees and put Roman heads on poles. Officers were bled out by Germanic leaders on sacrificial altars; and their armor was either left in piles or it was appropriated by the barbarians. Piles of coins have been found in nearby fields matching the Roman presence to the date on the coins. Romans were slaughtered, stripped of flesh and eaten. Their bones were boiled until they were white and used in Germanic magical ceremonies. The images summoned up in stories of the Barbarian conquests scared Romans for centuries. Of course, the Romans warred with the Barbarians ceaselessly during that time as well.
While Rome did battle with one tribe, they were cutting deals with another. Many of the most trusted personal bodyguards of Roman Emperors were from Germanic tribes, known for their fighting abilities and feared for their ferocity.
The borders between the barbarians and the Romans had been blurring for centuries. Many of the barbarians had great technical skills in materials manufacturing and weapons making. Most barbarian leaders and upper crust were literate people who lived in big estates and farmed the land just like the Romans did.
In 410 when Alaric led troops into Rome that next day, the Basilica and the Forum were burned down. But no wholesale slaughter or destruction took place whatsoever. After three days, Alaric left. The barbarian hordes did little damage. They just wanted land and citizenship. The damage to Rome had happened long before.
Source: The Definitive Visual History of War, DK Books, 2008; Battle, R. G. Grant 2005; BBC, History Channel