By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had displaced its religious rivals, and become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Yet by that time, it was clear that Rome was in difficulty. Its northern frontiers were vulnerable to invaders. Even the “eternal city” itself seemed in danger. As a precautionary measure, the seat of government of the western empire was moved from Rome – initially to the northern city of Milan, and then in 402 to the northeastern city of Ravenna, which was regarded as easier to defend.
For there was no longer any doubt that Rome was vulnerable. In 387, a Gallic tribal army overwhelmed Rome’s defenses and briefly took control of the city. Yet the tipping point in the decline of Rome took place in 408, when a Visigoth army led by Alaric laid siege to Rome. In August 410, Alaric led his armies into the city, and pillaged it. This inva- sion was only a temporary development, lasting a few days. Yet before they withdrew from the city, the Alaric’s army burned many parts of Rome, shaking the confidence of an entire civilization. The “eternal city” was in danger of being overthrown, if not completely destroyed.
Yet the sack of Rome did not mark the end of the Roman Empire. The administration of the empire was increasingly located in the east, at the new imperial city of Constanti- nople. As a result of earlier decisions, made with this possibility in mind, Rome was no longer even the capital city of the western empire. The government of the western empire continued without interruption for another generation. Most historians regard the western Roman Empire as coming to an end sometime around the year 476; the eastern empire, based at the great city of Constantinople, continued to exist for the best part of a thousand years. Yet the symbolic importance of the sack of Rome was massive. The era of the “eternal city” seemed to be coming to an end.
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