If the end of the world has a beginning, we could do far worse than date it to August 24–26, 410 A.D., when Alaric and the Visigoths entered the city of Rome. Almost as soon as it occurred, the Sack of Rome left the space of history and entered the realm of myth. It is in a very real way foundational for the apocalyptic imagination of the west. When we try to depict the end of life as we know it, the outcome turns out to be remarkably like what we imagine the sack of Rome to have been.
The Thrilling Myth
- Imagine that you live in an empire that has lasted 1,000 years. In that time, almost all other civilizations have been incorporated into it. Its people are prosperous, its cities magnificent, its lands secure. You know of no people, no kingdom, that equals it in greatness—indeed there is little beyond its boundaries to compare. It seems that human society and the empire are bound up in one another.
- Now imagine that in your lifetime, that empire is invaded from the outside by barbarians—people in some sense uncivilized, not quite lawless, but rather operating on a very primitive set of laws that could never suffice to govern a society as sophisticated as yours. They ravage your countryside, besiege and sack your towns and cities, and finally reach the capital of your empire—the greatest city ever known, the center of the world—and overrun it.
- Such was the situation facing the Roman world when Augustine began to write The City of God. Augustine writes in the wake of chaos, attempting to accept what has happened and to learn from it, to see what it can teach us, what use we can make of our sufferings, and to what end we may direct the essentially unjust acts that we must enact upon others.
The Mundane Truth
- The historical facts are in no doubt, but they have only passing relationship with our imagination.
- First, by the time of the sack, Rome had not been the actual capital of the Imperium Romanum—in the sense of the main city of the emperor—for more than a century. Constantine had moved the center of rule to Constantinople in 330; even earlier, the western emperor administered the west from Mediolanum (Milan), and at the time of the sack itself, from Ravenna.
- Second, the Visigoths who sacked the city were not giant, ignorant cavemen wearing animal skins and wielding unsheathed swords and massive axes. They entered the empire with their families as refugees from the Huns in 376. By the 400s they were themselves Arian Christians and well informed about civilization and its attractions.
- The initial welcome the authorities offered them in 376 rapidly wore out. There was famine, and the Romans decided to end their threat. A climactic but calamitous battle was fought against them in 378 near Adrianople, in what is now European Turkey. The Roman defeat was total; Emperor Valens himself died either in or soon after the battle. The new emperor, Theodosius, signed a treaty with the Visigoths, letting them settle in Thrace and turning them from enemies within the borders to a rich source of mercenary military power for the empire.
- After Theodosius’s death in 395, the youngish Alaric became headman of the Visigoths, and they again became unwelcome, a nomadic people harassed by the locals and harried by imperial troops wherever they went. Eventually they arrived in late 408 under the walls of Rome. Twenty months of negotiations and Machiavellian realpolitik followed, full of missed chances, foiled plans, folly, and sheer stupid accident.
- In the end, through the mysteries of accident, obscure motives surprisingly infected by unforeseen forces, and a thousand other micro- causes, Rome’s almost millennium-long luck ran out. The Visigoths sacked the city for three The sack ended on Alaric’s command, and the Visigoths marched south, looting along their line of march, hoping to winter in Africa. Alaric died, Ataulf took over, and the Goths marched north again into Gaul, finally settling in Aquitaine.
- The belief that the Roman Empire had entered a glorious new era with the imperial conversions to Christianity in the fourth century had secured for many people two narratives.
- One, for Christians, was the story of the triumph of Christianity in Rome, classically told by Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History.
- The other, for pagans, was the aging and decline of Roman power. But as much as this latter narrative did not approve of the course the empire was taking, it could not really imagine the empire would end, or that its sacred precincts would be violated.
- The people for whom the sack was most disastrous—and the people who had the largest voice in recording its details for posterity—were the upper-class survivors and victims who had lost the most in the sack itself. But for most people, the sack had little direct effect on their lives. Yet many people across the Mediterranean world were shocked by the sack, both psychologically and ideologically.
- Why did the sack have this effect? To understand, you have to know at least a little about how Romans saw the world and the spaces outside their imperium, as well as how they saw their imperium itself.
- The Imperium Romanum was where the Romans were obeyed. There were many different ways to issue commands, and to obey them, but the key was obedience, not necessarily direct and continuous control. The Roman idea of limes, of “limits,” at this time was understood to signify how far Rome would go out, not a set of borders (rivers and walls) that Rome would be safe within.
- People still believed that after the turbulence of the third-century “crisis” of the empire, and with the conversion of Constantine, there would be newfound peace and stability within the borders and a just and omnipotent God would oversee the imperium’s security. Certainly there was no thought that the barbarians would ever invade the empire, or that they would even want to.
- The imperium, with the awkward exception of the complicated and often-ignored Persian Empire to its east, was not surrounded by rival states, but by wilderness. It did not have borders; it had frontiers. There was in an important sense no boundary to the imperium; there was only the edge of where Rome had deigned to reach.
- Furthermore, the imperium was a cosmopolitan empire, enabling travel and encouraging trade across thousands of miles and between wildly different peoples. In an age of very limited travel, the imperium was a community of unprecedentedly diverse ways of being human.
- Romans’ humanitarian and cosmopolitan self-understanding was manifest in how they governed conquered peoples with a combination of liberality and brutality. They were religiously and culturally tolerant, but politically fascist. Once conquered, a people could do almost anything they wanted, so long as they did a minimal number of things in the Roman way.
- Romans saw the barbarians as we might see Neanderthals— sharing a great deal with us, but fundamentally another kind of creature altogether. But the barbarians turned out to be other than what the Romans had complacently expected them to be, and once they started moving in during the late fourth century, the Romans’ ignorant contempt for all those outside their imperium changed from mild amusement to increasingly paranoid alarm.
Change and the Rise of Christianity
- It wasn’t just that the sack of Rome challenged ideas throughout the Mediterranean about who the barbarians were and who they themselves were. It also challenged their notion of crisis, for this was a new kind of crisis altogether.
- Rome’s history of success had erased the idea of failure. Quite literally, they had no historical analogy for what was coming. Historically, one civilization had replaced another, but there was no memory of any collapse of civilization itself. Thinkers had developed the idea of cyclical visions of civilizational hegemony, but no real apocalypse, no real idea of a “dark age.” No one thought in terms of the end of their world.
- Another point was that they already felt their world was changing, in two ways.
- First, the Romans of Augustine’s day felt a deep sense of a lost moral integrity. Everywhere they looked, the past stood in mutely eloquent rebuke to the present. The memory of greatness, with all moral murkiness sanded away, provoked a poignant despair to Romans viewing their present situation. They were haunted by the memory of republican glory; the memorial statues and monuments scattered across the empire’s cities made the absence of heroism more palpable and painful and their consciences at their own moral decline all the more guilty.
- Additionally, the rise of Christianity was a genuinely new thing: the emergence of an empire-wide religion that sought to convert all people, of different nationalities and of all social classes to a new moral and spiritual posture that was possibly fundamentally alien to traditional Roman mores.
- The Romans could accommodate the idea of different peoples, with their different rituals and beliefs, and they were eager to incorporate new kinds of human cultures within their empire. But they required all the peoples to fit inside the Roman categories, not to challenge the terms on which Rome understood the world. In their evangelism, the Christians mixed groups and classes of people in ways that the Romans found deeply disturbing.
- First, they were both like and unlike the Jews the Romans had already encountered. The Christians were monotheists, but they seemed to think that their God should be the God for everybody now, not at some point in the future.
- Also the Christians were pretty clear that their loyalty to the imperium was less important than their loyalty to their Christos, and that Christ had shown them what they should do when the two loyalties conflicted.
- Finally, the Christians became a pretty apocalyptic group, with expectations for the imminent and radical transformation of the world. Nothing is less welcome to a hegemonic political power than an ideology that says the moral shape of the cosmos is designed to undo that hegemony.
- So it was not precisely the sack of Rome in 410 that provoked Augustine to compose The City of God, but the shock it gave the elite—Christian and pagan alike—which was the catalyst that crystallized their concerns. They were already anxious, yet pretty much unprepared. When the shock came, it synthesized a number of forces and arguments running under the surface of the late imperial world. How Augustine came to understand the task he had accepted as, in some sense, a civilization-saving undertaking is the subject of another lecture.
Questions to Consider
- Can you imagine a major public figure responding to a contemporary calamity in the way that Augustine responded to the Sack of Rome? What form would such a response take? Imagine an Augustinian response to 9/11 or the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
- What place or symbol of significance for us might be analogous to Rome’s role in the Empire?
From the lecture series Books That Matter: The City of God
Taught by Professor Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.