Chapter 23

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.