This week in history: The Vandals began their sack of Rome

03 June 2015

By Pan Macmillan

The Roman Empire wasn’t built in day, and neither was it destroyed in one. But many historians peg its terminal decline and eventual fall to a sacking of the city, the second of three, that began on 2 June 455 AD.

The Germanic Vandal King Genseric and the Roman Emperor Valentinian III had signed a peace treaty some three year earlier. To underline their alliance, they had betrothed their two children Huneric and Eudocia in marriage, but since the latter, Valentinian’s daughter, was only five years old at the time, the marriage was put on hold until she was of age. In the interim period, however, Valentinian was murdered and Petronius Maximus assumed the imperial throne. He duly married Valentinian’s widow and also had his son, Palladius, marry the still only eight year old Eudocia.

Considering the peace treaty null and void, Genseric headed to Rome with violence on his mind. While supposedly assuring Pope Leo that he would not slaughter the city’s inhabitants or destroy its ancient buildings, he proceeded to give the place a pretty good dusting down over the next two weeks anyway.

This is the Victorian historian Edward Gibbon’s account of the sacking from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

‘On the third day after the tumult, Genseric boldly advanced from the port of Ostia to the gates of the defenceless city. Instead of a sally of the Roman youth, there issued from the gates an unarmed and venerable procession of the bishop at the head of his clergy. The fearless spirit of Leo, his authority and eloquence, again mitigated the fierceness of a barbarian conqueror: the king of the Vandals promised to spare the unresisting multitude, to protect the buildings from fire, and to exempt the captives from torture; and although such orders were neither seriously given, nor strictly obeyed, the mediation of Leo was glorious to himself, and in some degree beneficial to his country. But Rome and its inhabitants were delivered to the licentiousness of the Vandals and Moors, whose blind passions revenged the injuries of Carthage. The pillage lasted fourteen days and nights; and all that yet remained of public or private wealth, of sacred or profane treasure, was diligently transported to the vessels of Genseric.’

The Fall of the Roman Empire

In AD 378 the Roman Empire had been the unrivalled superpower of Europe for well over four hundred years. And yet, August that year saw a small group of German-speaking asylum-seekers rout a vast Imperial army at Hadrianople, killing the Emperor and establishing themselves on Roman territory. Within a hundred years the last Emperor of the Western Empire had been deposed. What had gone wrong?

Read the first chapter now