ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise


Map Invasions of the Roman Empire 100-500 AD

When Western Emperor Theodosius I died in 395, the Barbarians again invaded the Roman Empire. This time, Alaric the Visigoth led them to penetrate as far as the Greek Peloponnese by 397. Alaric used his position to bargain for appointment as Roman army commander in the northwest Balkans. A child of refugees who had crossed the Danube in 376, [links to Barbarians Overview article] Alaric was seeking a real homeland for his people (Hodges).

Alaric, Visigoth King

Alaric invaded Italy in November 401 (Kukikowski 170), and again in 408/9 with 100,000 troops (Abbott 413), when he laid siege to Rome three times (Bradley 864), then finally sacked it in 410 (Kukikowski 177) .

This was the first assault on Rome by a foreign foe in 600 years. Alaric had the help of 40,000 Roman slaves who conspired with the Goths and threw open the gates to the city
(Abbott 413)
. Although Alaric did little damage to the city, and the Roman government had already retreated to Ravenna, the siege and sack permanently damaged Roman prestige. However, the sack did little to further Alaric’s goal to find a homeland and settle his people. 

Alaric marched his army south from Rome on the Via Traiana through the Samnium, intending to cross into Africa from Sicily.

The Visigoths rioted along the Appian Way and ravaged Southern Italy
(Abbott 413). On the way, they sacked Nola and Benevento. But the Visigoths got no further than Cosenza, where Alaric died of a fever [ malaria?] at 34 years old (Masciotta 121-2).

Death of Alaric, By Heinrich Leutemann (1824-1904)


Command of the Visigoths fell to Alaric’s brother-in-law Ataulfo. Ataulfo signed a peace treaty with Rome (Abbott 414) and agreed to champion Rome’s cause against the Vandals in Gaul rather than continuing on to Africa. By 418, the Visigoths settled in what is modern Spain, at the Emperor’s invitation, where they provided local stability.

Ataulfo married Placida, Honorius’ sister and a hostage since the sack of Rome. For the rest of her life, a troop of Goths served as her bodyguard and helped her become a political force in her own right (Kukikowski 183). Ataulfo died—assassinated--without an heir. The new king Wallia made peace with the empire, and married off the widow Placida to Emperor Constantinus, whom she hated, but who fathered her son Valentinian III.

Upon Honorius’ death, Spain dropped from the Empire. Britain and Gaul “silently passed into virtual independence” and the empire had no power over distant Africa (Abbott 415). In 435, Gaiseric and his Vandals had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to the African coast and settled in Carthage, making coastal raids into Sicily and Italy.

Over the next 40 years, the Franks secured most of northern France, and the Alemanni extended into the Alsace and northern Alps.

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During Alaric’s siege, Rome offered 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk robes, 4,000 robes dyed with Tyrian purple, and 4,000 pounds of pepper, used freely in Roman cooking but not Gothic, to leave Italy (Bradley 864).

Much of Rome’s wealth left in Gothic wagons, and many Roman aristocrats fled as far as North Africa and Palestine (Kukikowski 179).

Alaric was turned back from crossing into Sicily… legend says by either a storm at sea or the magic power of a sacred statue stolen with the loot from Rome (Kukikowski 180)

According to legend, Alaric died near the river Busento. Alaric's followers diverted the river’s course and marched Roman captives into the riverbed to dig the grave. They placed Alaric's body and many sacked treasures into the grave, returned the river to its normal channel and killed the diggers, never to reveal the site's secrets
(Kukikowski 180; Masciotta 122).













The Huns probably originated in the Central Asian steppes, possibly the Mongolian border. Population expansion pushed them into eastern Europe; they first appeared north of the Black Sea around 370 AD. By 376 AD, they had conquered the Ostrogoths. Beginning in 380, they entered the Roman Foederati (federation) and settled in Pannonia--modern Hungary--as mercenary bands.

In 435, co-rulers Attila and his brother Bleda eventually forced the Roman Treaty of Margus, which gave the Huns trade rights and annual tributes from Rome. In 445, Bleda died, leaving Attila the sole ruler. 

Extent of Attila's Empire

When Rome reneged on its payments, Attila and his Huns crossed the Danube and compelled the Eastern Empire to purchase peace in 445. The Huns also marched West, through Gaul and Italy, with a “half million of the fiercest warriors the earth has ever known” (Abbott 416).

By 451, however, a Romans and barbarians alliance forced Attila into retreat. The Huns then focused their raids on Italy, but only until Attila’s death in 453. 

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Attila destroyed the Italian town of Acquileia and all of Venetia. Inhabitants escaped into the uninhabited marshy islands at the extremity of the Adriatic, which would become the city of Venice (Abbott 416).

Attila died on the night of his wedding to Honoria--sister of Roman Emperor Honorius--of a burst artery, suffocating in his own blood (Abbott 416).


The Vandals were the first Germanic tribes to march through Italy, on to Spain and they eventually established themselves in North Africa, with a capital at Carthage.

In 455, King Genseric and his Vandals arrived from Africa to sack Rome. According to a peace treaty with the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian--Placida’s son, Genseric’s son Huneric was to marry Valentinian’s daughter Eudocia. However, Valentinian was killed and the new emperor Maximus, married his own son Palladius to Eudocia instead, weakening Genseric’s ambitions (Wikipedia, Sack). For 2 weeks, the Vandals and accompanying Moors sacked the city of Rome. Ironically, Eudoxia, Eudocia and her sister were among the thousands of Roman citizens the Vandals then brought back to Africa as slaves (Abbott 417) 

Between 455 and 456, the Vandals also sacked from Capua through Magna Grecia and Sicily, stole all the metal treasure they could carry, and burned large amounts of Hellenic and Roman art. To the Romans, the Vandals were “the scourge of humanity” (Masciotta 122). However, Terry Jones challenges the Roman depiction, calling the Vandals “…highly moral, educated, literate and often a lot more civilized than the Romans.” For example, he calls the Vandal’s sack of Rome a “not great act of destruction,” as they did not destroy a single building (Jones 11).  

One version says Valentinian had violated the wife of Senator Maximus, who in turn killed Valentinian. Maximus then assumed the crown as Emperor. When his wife died, Maximus tried to marry Valentinian’s widow Eudoxia, but she rebuffed him. Eudoxia asked Genseric to protect her. So Genseric brought his army up from Africa and captured Rome (Abbott 417).  

The Vandals gave us the term for wanton destruction we use today: “vandalism.”


Coin, OdoacerOdoacer became the first “barbarian ruler of Italy” in 476 by deposing the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Like Alaric, Odoacer was a military leader of barbarian troops within the Roman army. Backed by the Roman senate, Odoacer used his army to overthrow Augustulus and rule as council or patrician for 17 years (Masciotta 123). While appearing to be loyal to the Eastern Emperor Zeno, Odoacer held the real power on the Italian peninsula. A few years after his coup, Odoacer began invading and annexing Zeno’s Eastern provinces.

Map, Odoacer's Kingdom 480 AD

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Theodoric was the son of an Ostrogoth king, born in Pannonia. As a child, he was sent as hostage to the Constantinople court, where he received a formal education. In 474 AD, at age 20, Theodoric became king of the Ostrogoths (Bradley 1280).

1512 Statue, Theodoric the Great

At Eastern Emperor Zeno’s request, Theodoric marched 250,000 Ostrogoths--with baggage, wagons and cattle--from Pannonia into Italy (Bradley 1280). He invaded the Veneto, then battled and bested Odoacer at Ravenna in 493 (Masciotta 123).  

Theodoric established and stabilized the Gothic domain called “Italia” as a formal part of the Roman Empire (Masciotta 123). Italy enjoyed 33 years of comparative peace until Theodoric’s death (dysentery) in 526. Without a male heir, Theodoric’s kingdom went to his daughter, the regent Amalassunta, and began to crumble. 

“Odoacer was a mere adventurer and a general of mercenary troops; Theodoric was indeed a king by right but was not King of Italy… He was, in imperial theory, the governor of the country as long as the emperor chose that he should remain in office.” (Crawford 6).

Roman hostages were more often “sent” than “taken” as part of peace treaties. The idea was to educate children of hostile nobles in Roman ways, and ensure next-generation loyalty.  Attila the Hun was another notable child-hostage raised in Rome.

Theodoric murdered Odoacer at a party to celebrate the end of hostilities
(Crawford 2)


The Gothic War, Painting by A Zick

"This war, then, between the Empire and the Goths, was a long, fastidious and troubled war that offered ponderable results” (Masciotta 25).

Drawing of Amalassunta, Nurenberg ChroniclesThe Goths did not like Theodoric’s daughter Amalassunta, but she held favor with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. When her son Atalarico died in 534, her cousin Teodato--supported by ultranationalists who opposed Amalassunta--fought her for control.  

Teodato was rumored to have choked Amalassunta in her bath. The rumor was enough cause for Justinian to invade, to regain control of Italy (Masciotta 123)

Over the next 20 years, Justinian worked to rid the West of barbarians. First, in 534, Justinian’s general Belisarius captured Carthage and the Vandals ceased to be a political entity. Justinian, however, was not able to evict the Visigoths from Spain, because he needed his army to defend against a Sasanian-Iranian--army sweeping into Syria. 

In 536, Belisarius invaded Italy, passing from Reggio to Naples and Benevento (Masciotta 124)

Belisarius refuses the crown of Italy offered by the Goths

Pitzas, a Goth and a large landowner, surrendered the maritime ports (Thompson 97-98), himself and “the Goths of Samnium” to Belisarius. In return, he received command of the region (Armory 537)

By 540, Belisarius held the Ostrogoth capital at Ravenna. But Belisarius had not entirely routed the Ostrogoths when Justinian recalled him to Constantinople.

Totila, by F Salviati c 1549Totila, “a man of singular virtue and high valor,” consolidated the remains of the Goth army and, in Belisarius’ absence, reconquered almost all the old Goth domain
(Masciotta 124).  

Ultimately, both Totila and his successor, Tera, died of battle wounds fighting Belisarius’ replacement, the Grand Eunoch Narsete.  

Finally, in 552 Justinian invited more Barbarians, the Longobards, to Italy to fight against the Ostrogoths.

But Justinian’s Western conquests were short-lived. The Empire eventually ceded its Spanish territory; the Balkans fell to Slavs in the 570s;  Grecian ports lost their mountain hinterlands; and, by 571, Italy fell to the Longobard King Alboin, who had consolidated his own power in the aftermath of Justinian’s death.

The fragmented Roman Empire reorganized into new and independent kingdoms. Britain, overrun by Angles and abandoned by Rome, became Anglia or England; the Franks in Gaul created France; the Visigoths, Vandals and Suabians created Spain; and the Huns in Pannonia created Hungary.

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Atalarico died from aphrodisiac abuse

“…the Italian landholder, for whose sake, nominally, the Gothic war was undertaken, found himself pillaged and trampled upon [by Belisarius' army] as he had never been by the most brutal of the barbarians” (Hodgkin 4138)

Defecting Goths risked giving up their families and prosperity to serve in the Roman army, but would receive Roman citizenship in return (Armory 168).

The Samnites preferred Byzantine rule to Totila, and resisted his efforts at reconquest. At Totila’s hand, Benevento’s walls were crumbled, the houses sacked, and the inhabitants massacred
(Masciotta 124).

“The star of the Goths turned to sunset behind a hazy glow of blood” (Masciotta 125).


Abbott, John S.C. Italy. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1882.

Armory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Bradley, Henry. The Story of the Goth from the Earliest Times to the End of the Gothic Dominion in Spain. New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1888. E-book.

Crawford, Francis Marion. Southern Italy and Sicily, and The Rulers of the South. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1907.

Hodges, Richard and David Whitehorse. Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Hodgkin, Thomas. Theodoric the Goth. The Barbarian Champion of Civilisation. London: The Knickerbocker Press, 1897. E-Book.

Jones, Terry and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones' Barbarians. Oxford: BBC Books, 2007. E-Book.

Kukikowski, Michael. Rome's Gothic Wars. From the Third Century to Alaric. Cambridge University Press, 2007. E-Book.

Masciotta, Giambattista. Il Molise dalle origini ai nostri giorni. Vol. I. Napoli: Luigi Pierro e Figlio, 1914.

Thompson, E. A,. Romans and Barbarians: Decline of the Western Empire. University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

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