Alaric Enters Rome: 19th century engraving, after a drawing by Hermann Knackfuss ** This is a pretty long post, but it’s divided into three sections: intro, history, then coins. If you get bored at any point, just skip ahead to the next section… plus there’s a tl;dr summary at the end. Introduction Any history-based collector will want to represent The Sack of Rome of 410 in their collection, but how to do it? This post is an attempt to answer that question, but first: the event itself. Did the guttural scream come from a dying friend or a crazed besieger? As he cowered deep inside Hadrian’s mausoleum, Capellianus could no longer tell or even understand the difference, such was his terror. His only strength came from his devotion to the emperors’ ashes that surrounded him. Not just Hadrian, but all the Antonines and their families, even the divine Septimius and his sons. The pittance of public money Capellianus received as the sole remaining acolyte responsible for the tombs’ upkeep was barely enough to keep body and soul together, but a few pagan senators sometimes gave him a coin or two when they visited. He felt their weight in his pouch, and found a little comfort there. Did the kind old gentlemen yet live? Screams, cut short, from inside the building now. A brazier flickered in the corner and Capellianus cursed himself for neglecting to put it out. He prayed to the divine Pius that his great sarcophagus, behind which Capellianus shrank, would sprout more walls and enfold him, safe and silent. He squeezed his eyes tight as though his lids could extinguish the brazier. The unholy noises came closer, and an image sprang to mind of his own dead body polluting the sacred space. Oh gods, please forgive me! I am your humblest servant! Heavy bootsteps echoed into the room, uncouth laughter. There were many of them, so many. Presently he heard raucous shouts, surprised laughter, and the rumble of stone sliding on stone. Capellianus could make no sense of the note of festive joy spilling into the room, but he found the air becoming thicker, unbreathable… was that smoke? His throat tickled and he panicked: the mounting urge to cough was dragging him towards death as surely as a hangman’s noose. With his hands constricting mouth and throat in an effort to remain silent, he rocked sideways and caught a glimpse of broken urns, cracked sarcophagi, and barbarian soldiers leaping like celebrants, throwing dust into the air. Reality convulsed him with horror: he was choking not on smoke, but divine ashes. Abomination! Faint scraping shrieks escaped his fingers which writhed helplessly over his betraying mouth, and the pathetic noise brought a leering, helmeted, and raggedly bearded face past the sarcophagus rim. Capellianus stared transfixed as a hand rose above his head. It was holding a vicious spatha, stained by the blood of his friends. Swiftly, the sword brought his horror to an end. If the Goth who killed poor (fictional) Capellianus knew how to read Latin, he would have laughed at the coins that spilled from the hapless Roman’s pouch. The only bronze issue produced by the Rome mint immediately prior to and leading up to the siege read VRBS ROMA FELIX, “The Lucky City of Rome.” It is perhaps the most ironic issue in the entire Roman series. Historical context When you’re starving, does it count as treachery? On Aug. 24th 410, someone opened Rome’s Salarian Gate to Alaric and his primarily Gothic troops, who pillaged the city for three horrific days. By the forgiving standards of an ancient sack, deaths were mercifully few, but the city was stripped of its enormous wealth and many captives were taken, including the emperor Honorius’s sister, Galla Placidia, later forced to marry a Gothic leader. Innumerable great buildings were ransacked, including the Mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian, where the ashes of emperors were indeed scattered to the four winds. Rome had not experienced a sack for nearly 800 years. St. Jerome called it “the decapitation of the Empire,” and to many it seemed like the end of the world. Thousands of refugees fled, the once wealthy now destitute. Combining deaths due to starvation, disease, and the sack itself, Rome’s population fell from 800,000 to 500,000 practically overnight. The glory that was Rome was capital-O Over. One of the most tragic things about the sack was that it was so frustratingly avoidable. Stilicho, half-Vandal and regent over the young Honorius in the west, had managed Alaric’s Goths (among others) quite ably for well over a decade, defeating them when necessary but also grooming them for use in the Western Empire’s interests against other barbarian invaders, usurpers, and the increasingly hostile Eastern Empire. But after the death of Arcadius on May 1st, 408, the ignorant twenty-three year old Honorius decided to assert himself. Here is his four-step program for ensuring disaster: Step 1: Execute the only guy who can keep the Goths in line, Stilicho. (While Stilicho was out getting the job done, Honorius had his ears bent by Stilicho’s enemies at court.) Step 2: Instead of allowing Alaric to settle his people somewhere and fight for you, cancel Stilicho’s deal with him, refuse all reasonable offers, and send him an insulting letter. Step 3: Instigate a purge against the Germanic peoples in Italy, ensuring that vengeful hordes swell Alaric’s ranks. Step 4: After a really ticked-off Alaric lays siege to Rome (in 408, which you do nothing to oppose) and persuades the Senate to depose you (raising Priscus Attalus to the purple), but then still approaches you with a very reasonable offer, don’t really accept it, just pretend to. Then launch a feeble attempt at treacherous assassination. “Oops, just kidding!” After all that, I think I would have sacked Rome too! Honorius was clearly a twit, and is largely remembered as such. One story has it that when a court official, in tears, reported “Roma has perished!” Honorius thought they were talking about his favourite rooster, named Roma (see image below). Unlike Diocletian, he did not wait until his retirement to indulge in a frivolous agricultural pastime! The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse (1883) (Wikimedia Commons) Honorius did eventually wise up and cooperate with the Goths, not that this was of any use to Alaric; the poor guy died of fever just a few months after the sack. Stepping back a bit, the big picture history of the Visigoths makes for a real adventure story. It starts in the mid-third century when they were a major threat on the empire’s northern borders. After suffering successive defeats at the hands of Claudius II, Aurelian, and Constantine II, the Huns pushed them across the border where they cut a settlement deal with the Romans. Rome did not hold up her end of the bargain, though, leading to a Gothic rampage and the death of the emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378. In 382 Thedosius cut another deal with them, naming them Foederati and allowing them to settle as long as they fought for Rome. Which they did, to their loss; they were used on the front lines at the battle of the Frigidus against Eugenius and Arbogast, and around half the Goths died. So it’s understandable why, under their energetic young king Alaric (newly elected about 395), they became more politically aggressive in the complex power struggles of the ensuing decade and a half, culminating, as we saw, in the sack of Rome in 410. In 418 Honorius allowed them to help him against the mixed Germanic peoples who had crossed the Rhine, rewarding the Goths with territory in southern Gaul. Eventually they were pushed into Spain by the Franks and adopted the name “Visigoths,” which was an invention of 6th century scholars. Quite the journey, yes? Though it all ended in tears: their kingdom was ultimately extinguished by the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the early 8th century. The Coins (what you've been waiting for, yes?) As I mentioned earlier, the VRBS ROMA FELIX type was the only bronze produced by the Rome mint just before the sack; it’s also basically exclusive to Rome, although it’s also known (barely) for Aquileia. A slam dunk to represent the sack, then; but coin nerds like us have additional reasons to like the type. First, it’s incredibly challenging to find a nice one: I fantasize about a high-grade, full flan, well struck example, but I doubt one even exists, and I think @Valentinian (who’s been looking at these for a lot longer than I have) shares that doubt. The good news is that this makes for a highly entertaining hunt! The image below shows the best ones I’ve found so far. It’s surmised that the instructions to the mint on these were a bit sketchy, with the result that many varieties exist, giving rise to coin nerd fantasy #2: obtaining all of them. I myself won’t be attempting this, since there are at least 40!  Instead, the small set I’m trying to assemble will cover all the variables with a handful of coins. Those variables are: • Three emperors, Honorius (pretty easy), Arcadius (coin 2 above), and Theodosius II (rare, I don’t have one). • Five officinae, P, S, T, Q, and E. In my experience, the third officina is most commonly encountered. Interestingly, the Greek epsilon is used for the fifth because the Latin would be Q for “quinta,” confusing it with the fourth, “quarto.” In the 380s, the Rome mint had been reduced from six officinae to five. While it had six, the symbol for the second was also hellenized to “B” to avoid the secundo/sexta overlap. Despite the drop to 5 officinae, the use of B for the second continued until at least 402 or 403, when it was finally replaced by S. This helps date the series, and shows that the SALVS REIPVBLICAE issue (Victory dragging captive, Esty type 39), in which the second officina is designated “B”, came just before it. According to RIC, SALVS ended in 403 and VRBS ROMA FELIX began in 404. • Two diadem types: The most common type of diadem on these is a pearl diadem, which can be seen on coins 1, 2, and 4 above. Coin 3 shows a rosette diadem, which is considerably scarcer. • Two Roma types, head facing and head right. The head facing variety, seen on coin 4, is “by far the rarer” (quoting RIC). I’m particularly proud of coin 4 because of its exceptional detail and rarity, and I haven’t yet seen another that shows Roma’s face. • Two modules (sort of), large and small. Coins 1 to 4 are all large module, as is any example that’s big enough to accommodate the full legend, in my opinion - we’re talking 16mm-plus. Coins 5 and 6 below are struck on small, dumpy flans, 14mm or less: “small module.” According to Grierson in the Dumbarton Oakes catalogue, the weight standard for western AE3 (or “centenionalis” ) at this time was 2.27g; my coins range from 1.70g at the low end (coin 5 is 1.72g) to 2.53g (coin 4, a hefty one). Broader coins are somewhat more likely to be heavy, but there’s a lot of overlap in weights between the two modules.  There are also coins in the vicinity of 15mm, so using the terms “large” and “small” module may not be quite right; rather there was a gradual transition towards a reduced flan size, and poorer quality, as the political situation worsened. • Two legend break positions: The small module coins below (coins 5 and 6) have a different legend break from the first four coins, RI-VS instead of R-IVS, although this is only apparent on coin 5. There are also Arcadius coins with DI-VS rather than D-IVS; this is extremely rare for the (later) Roma head right variety. It seems the shrinking module was accompanied by more frequent use of the _I-VS legend break, likely coming in 408 since DI-VS is so rare for Arcadius. Late, small module coins are almost entirely in the name of Honorius, with the RI-VS break. RIC notes that the rare Roma head facing varieties are invariably found on large, well made flans. These are probably early issues. Given subsequent events, perhaps we can cut the mint some slack for the decline in quality: In 405, Radagaisus invaded Italy, intending burn Rome to the ground and sacrifice all the Senators to the pagan gods; Stilicho defeated him in 406, but then the Rhine froze at the end of the year and hordes of Vandals, Burgundians, and Suevi crossed into Gaul, wreaking havoc and causing usurpers galore to pop up. In 407 Britain was lost forever and Constantine III revolted. Things got even worse of course when Arcadius died in 408, Stilicho was executed, and Alaric put Rome under siege, resulting in rampant disease, rationing, starvation, and even cannibalism. Mint workers died, and it’s understandable that the remainder perhaps felt a little less enthusiasm for their day job! Another reason for the decline in quality may have been the city’s loss of an enormous amount of wealth when Alaric was paid to lift the first siege of 408. He managed to extort an astounding 5000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, and 4000 silk tunics. (Also 3000 scarlet hides, and 3000 pounds of pepper. I guess pepper was valuable, if only to make the Huns sneeze… but why scarlet!?) Actually, I lied. It’s not quite true that this post’s featured type is the only pre-sack Rome mint bronze. In the fall of 409, with the pressure of a renewed siege, Alaric persuaded the Roman Senate to elevate the Prefect of Rome, Priscus Attalus, in opposition to Honorius in Ravenna. A new bronze issue with Victory reverse came from the mint, and I think it’s possible to see some continuity in style & fabric with the VRBS ROMA FELIX issues: Priscus Attalus, Rome mint AE3, issued 409. (Sold for 4800 USD at Rauch in 2009, and again for 8000 CHF at NAC in 2013. Not my coin!) Alaric soon stripped Attalus of his title and reopened negotiations with Honorius, so Attalus coins are now extremely rare. (Please don’t believe The Worst Ever Auction House For Late Roman Bronze when they try to sell you a crappy VRBS ROMA FELIX as an Attalus! 600 EUR hammer, gulp. ) It may be that production of the small module VRBS ROMA FELIX coins was resumed at this point, i.e. at the end of 409. In any case, since most of us don’t want to fork out a few thousand for an Attalus coin, VRBS ROMA FELIX is our only realistic option to represent the sack. I recommend getting at least two examples of the type for your collection. The tough one is a nicely struck example on a broad flan (from 404-407ish?), to fully display the irony of the legend. Then if you want something produced as close in time to the sack as possible, maybe even during one of the three sieges in 408-410, get a small module Honorius with legend break RI-VS, like coins 5 & 6 above. A nice large module example is desirable for another reason: these coins are the very last decent bronzes produced by the Rome mint, which was the main western mint for bronze in the late period. It was located near the Colosseum, roughly here. The mint resumed its work after the sack with the last of the AE3/centenionalis denomination; later issues are exclusively junky AE4s. (Some of us still love these, of course. And some people love hairless cats.) Coin 7 below is one of those final AE3s. As you can see, the small, dumpy fabric we saw for coins 5 and 6 continues, as does the poor quality, although this coin is quite heavy at 3.28g. Sadly, coin 7 is actually a rather nice example of this rare type. If you’re willing to get three coins to represent the 410 sack, this type would be my recommendation for coin #3. Production probably began in Aquileia in 409 while Honorius had lost Rome to Attalus; presumably the Rome issue began post-sack once the city was recovered. It only lasts for a few years, so the type makes a nice bookend for the event. Plus it still displays some tasty irony: GLORIA ROMANORVM? Hmm… As you can see, my set is coming close to covering all the VRBS ROMA FELIX variables at this point. No second officina coin is pictured here, but I do have one (pretty yucky, though!). The only thing I’m missing, really, is a Theodosius II. You can feast your eyes on an exceptional example at Warren Esty’s page on the VRBS ROMA FELIX type, Esty type 49. You’ll also see that my Arcadius is an Esty plate coin on his image page. For the three of you who read this far, congratulations! I’m done. For those who want to explore further, here are some useful links in addition to Warren’s awesome site: • There are some excellent VRBS ROMA FELIX examples at the Nummus Bible II. • Here's Tesorillo’s page on the type. • @ValiantKnight did a nice post on these back in 2013. Finally, here’s the promised tl;dr version, in four bullet points: • The 410 Sack of Rome by Alaric’s Goths was a monumental historical event: in the space of two years, the city of Rome went from Awesome Jewel of the Empire to Lots of Denuded Buildings Only Half Full of Poor People. Mostly it was Honorius’s fault, plus his ethnocentric advisors who persuaded the poultry-obsessed emperor to get rid of Stilicho and alienate the Goths. • Almost all of us want to represent The Sack in our collections. The best coin to play this role is the deliciously ironic VRBS ROMA FELIX type (“Happy city of Rome”), produced exclusively by the Rome mint immediately prior. No doubt many of these coins moved from the unfortunate victims’ pouches to those of Alaric’s Goths. • The type features a number of varieties. My recommendation is to get a large (16mm+), early, well struck example (very hard to find!) that shows nearly full legends, as well as a late Honorius-only example on a small, dumpy flan with RI-VS legend break. The former shows the type in its full glory, while the latter was issued very near the sack… and can quasi-fill that impossible Priscus Attalus slot too. • A nice VRBS ROMA FELIX also represents the last decent product of the Rome mint, as well as the penultimate issue of the AE3/centenionalis denomination. Cool! Thanks for reading! Let’s see your lrbs from 380 and later, especially Rome and other western mint products! — and special thanks to @Valentinian (Warren Esty) for his help with this post! Footnotes:  - Here are the VRBS ROMA FELIX RIC X listings showing legend break position, diadem type, and known officinae: Roma, head facing (variety A) R 1271 Arcadius, D–IVS, pearl (P, S, E) R 1272 Arcadius, D–IVS, rosette (P, S) R4 1273 Arcadius, DI–VS (pearl) (E) R 1274 Honorius, pearl (R–IVS) (all) R 1275 Honorius, rosette (R–IVS) (P, S, T) R 1276 Theodosius (pearl) (T, Q) R2 Roma, head to r. (variety B) 1277 Arcadius, D–IVS, pearl (all) S 1278 Arcadius, D–IVS, rosette (S, T, E) S 1279 Arcadius, DI–VS (pearl) (E) R4 1280 Honorius, R–IVS, pearl (all) S 1281 Honorius, R–IVS, rosette (P, Q) S 1282 Honorius, RI–VS (pearl) (all) C 1283 Theodosius (pearl) (T, Q, E) R2  - According to Grierson, there’s textual evidence for this name, which may mean “100 denarii.” This would make sense of some of the enormous prices in denarii found on Egyptian papyri of the period.  - The standard in the Eastern empire was reduced to 1.6g, but apparently not in the West.