Could someone live during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and not know it? The large contours of history are always clearer in hindsight.
Perhaps those living in the empire during its last days assumed that they were experiencing merely a temporary setback, and that there was still a chance for the empire to revive itself.
Thus it came to many as a surprise when the Goths, led by Alaric, attacked and sacked the city of Rome in 410 A.D.
Alaric led the Visigoths - the western Goths in contrast to the Ostrogoths - and conquered much of the Italian peninsula. Alaric understood that the key to holding Roman territories would be controlling Africa, and the shipping to and from Africa, because Rome had become dependent on imported food.
Rome’s economy had undermined domestic food production, and Alaric understood how the interplay between military strategy and economic strategy would enable him to consolidate his hold on Rome.
Sadly, Alaric died before he could complete his conquest of Rome.
A generation after Alaric, Theodoric, leader of the Ostrogoths, would see the final fall of the Roman Empire. Wealth and a sense of security weakened the Romans.
The Goths eventually bested the Romans because the Goths were continually innovative, living by their wits, with no historical momentum behind their empire.
Lulled by their tradition of success, the Romans awoke too late to the fact that the Goths were competing with them. Historian Thomas Cahill writes:
Though it is easy for us to perceive the wild instability of the Roman Imperium in its final days, it was not easy for the Romans. Rome, the Eternal City, had been untouched since the Celts of Gaul had sacked it by surprise in 390 B.C. In the ensuing eight centuries Rome built itself into the world’s only superpower, unassailable save for the occasional war on a distant border. The Gauls had long since become civilized Romans, and Rome offered the same Romanization to anyone who wanted it - sometimes, as with the Jews, whether they wanted it or not. Normally, though, everyone was dying to be Roman. As Theodoric, the homely king of the Ostrogoths, was fond of saying: “An able Goth wants to be like a Roman; only a poor Roman would want to be like a Goth.”
Rome’s continuous centuries of hegemony may have been its undoing. The Goths were more ambitious.
After taking from the Romans their gold, silver, and other treasures, Alaric required them to free their slaves: their “barbarian” slaves. The Romans had derisively called the Germanic tribes “barbarians” - the Goths, and other less famous groups like the Cimbri and Cherusci - but now the Germanic tacticians had outwitted the Romans.
The leaders of the Roman senate, seeing all that they had lost to Alaric, asked him, “What will you leave us?”
Alaric’s historic answer: “Your lives.”