CHAPTER XXIII: FALL OF THE WESTERN EMPIRE (AD 451-476)
The empire of the West was now fast sinking. One weak prince was at the head of it after another, and the spirit of the old Romans, who had conquered the world, had quite died out. Immense hosts of barbarous nations poured in from the North. The Goths, under Alaric, who took Rome by siege, in the reign of Honorius, have been already mentioned (p 93). Forty years later, Attila, king of the Huns, who was called "The scourge of God," kept both the East and the West in terror. In the year 451, he advanced as far as Orleans, and, after having for some time besieged it, he made a breach in the wall of the city. The soldiers of the garrison, and such of the citizens as could fight, had done their best in the defence of the walls; those who could not bear arms betook themselves to the churches, and were occupied in anxious prayer. The bishop, Anianus, had before earnestly begged that troops might be sent to the relief of the place; and he had posted a man on a tower, with orders to look out in the direction from which succour might be hoped for. The watchman twice returned to the bishop without any tidings of comfort; but the third time he said that he had noticed a little cloud of dust as far off as he could see. "It is the aid of God!" said the bishop and the people who heard him took up the words, and shouted, "It is the aid of God!" The little cloud, from being "like a man's hand" (1 Kings xviii. 44), grew larger and drew nearer; the dust was cleared away by the wind, and the glitter of spears and armour was seen; and just as the Huns had broken through the wall, and were rushing into the city, greedy of plunder and bloodshed, an army of Romans and allies arrived and forced them to retreat. After having been thus driven from Orleans, Attila was defeated in a great battle near Chalons, on the river Marne, and withdrew into Germany.
In the following year (452), Attila invaded Italy, where he caused great consternation. But when the bishop of Rome, Leo the Great, went to his camp near Mantua, and entreated him to spare the country, Attila was so much struck by the bishop's venerable appearance and his powerful words, that he agreed to withdraw on receiving a large sum of money. A few months later he suddenly died, and his kingdom soon fell to pieces
By degrees, the Romans lost Britain, Gaul, Spain, and Africa; and Italy was all that was left of the western empire.
Genseric, who, as has been mentioned (p 127), had led the Vandals into Africa, long kept the Mediterranean in constant dread of his fleets. Three years after the invasion of Italy by Attila, he appeared at the mouth of the Tiber (AD 455), having been invited by the empress Eudoxia, who wished to be revenged on her husband, in consequence of his having told her that he had been the cause of her former husband's death. As the Vandals approached the walls of Rome, the bishop, Leo, went forth at the head at his clergy. He pleaded with Genseric as he had before pleaded with Attila, and he brought him to promise that the city should not be burnt, and that the lives of the inhabitants should be spared, but Genseric gave up the place for fourteen days to plunder, and the sufferings of the people were frightful. The Vandal king returned to Africa with a vast quantity of booty, and with a great number of captives, among whom were the unfortunate empress and her two daughters. On this occasion the bishop of Carthage, Deogratias, behaved with noble charity;--he sold the gold and silver plate of the church, and with the price he redeemed some of the captives, and relieved the sufferings of others. Two of the churches were turned into hospitals. The sick were comfortably lodged, and were plentifully supplied with food and medicines; and the good bishop, old and infirm as he was, visited them often, by night as well as by day, and spoke words of kindness and of Christian consolation to them.
This behaviour of Deogratias was the more to his honour, because his own flock was suffering severely from the oppression of the Vandals, who, as we have already seen (p 127), were Arians. Genseric treated the Catholics of Africa very tyrannically, his son and successor, Hunneric, was still more cruel to them; and, as long as the Vandals held possession of Africa, the persecution, in one shape or another, was carried on almost without ceasing.
The last emperor of the West, Augustulus, was put down in the year 476, and a barbarian prince named Odoacer became king of Italy.