|Alaric escorts the Christian treasures of Rome to safety at Saint Peter's Basilica |
during the Gothic sack of AD 410. [Click to enlarge].
Rome, in an invasion of the Goths advancing under their king Alaric, was overthrown by their disastrous attack. The worshipers of false gods and of many gods, to whom we colloquially refer as pagans, tried to blame this on the Christian religion and began to blaspheme the true God with more bitterness and more severity than usual.” (Augustine, Retractiones, Chapter LXIX]So shattering was this event that few Roman historians of the time seemed to want to record it in their works. Of those who did, such as Olympiodorus of Thebes, only fragmentary and derivative passages have survived antiquity. Even Jordanes, in his 6th century work On the Origin and Deeds of the Goths, passes over Alaric’s exploit in a cursory way without elaboration.
One ancient source that covered the sack in some detail was Hermias Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History. Perhaps drawing on the lost history of Olympiodorus, Sozomen provides the following account of the lead-up to the sack, explaining how the foolish decisions of the emperor Honorius and his court at Ravenna offended Alaric and drove him to lay siege to the magnificent ancient capital, Rome:
The Western Empire fell a prey to disorders, because many tyrants arose. After the death of Stilicho, Alaric, the leader of the Goths, sent an embassy to Honorius to treat of peace; but without avail. He advanced to Rome, and laid siege to it; and by posting a large army of barbarians on the banks of the Tiber, he effectually prevented the transmission of all provisions into the city from Portus. After the siege had lasted some time, and fearful ravages had been made in the city by famine and pestilence, many of the slaves, and most of the barbarians by race within the walls, deserted to Alaric. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 6]At this time, the first indications of religious strife within the city were made manifest as the pagans among the nobility felt that an appeal to their gods might be effective at warding off the Gothic horde. Sozomen explains:
These “persons of good sense” were no doubt the Christians in the city who feared that Alaric had been sent by God as an avenger for the blasphemies against Christ committed in Rome. Another ecclesiastical historian of the same period, Socrates Scholasticus, records an incident which emphasizes this point:
Those among the senators who still adhered to pagan superstition, proposed to offer sacrifices in the Capitol and the other temples; and certain Tuscans, who were summoned by the prefect of the city, promised to drive out the barbarians with thunder and lightning; they boasted of having performed a similar exploit at Larnia, a city of Tuscany, which Alaric had passed by for Rome, and had not taken. The event, however, proved that no advantage could be derived from these persons for the city. All persons of good sense were aware that the calamities which this siege entailed upon the Romans were indications of Divine wrath sent to chastise them for their luxury, their debauchery, and their manifold acts of injustice towards each other, as well as towards strangers. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 6]
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It is said that as he was advancing towards Rome, a pious monk exhorted him not to delight in the perpetuation of such atrocities, and no longer to rejoice in slaughter and blood. To whom Alaric replied, 'I am not going on in this course of my own will; but there is a something that irresistibly impels me daily, saying, 'Proceed to Rome, and desolate that city.' [Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chapter 10]At the behest of Pope Innocent I and the emperor Honorius, both of whom were in Ravenna at the time, Alaric raised the first siege of Rome and hastened to Arminium to open negotiations with high hopes that he would be given an exalted rank and honors. But Honorius and his courtiers, misunderstanding their military situation, offered him only money and provisions and were inflexible on all other points. Alaric soon became frustrated with their dithering. Returning to Rome, he renewed the siege of the city and raised up Attalus, the prefect of the city, as a puppet emperor and rival to Honorius.
With Attalus as additional leverage, Alaric tried again to negotiate with Honorius. But while these negotiations were dragging on, a terrible famine struck Rome because the grain supply from Africa had been stopped by officers loyal to Honorius. Attalus proved completely unable to cope with this situation, and was at loggerheads with Alaric over what to do next. As a result, Alaric agreed to strip Attalus of his position in exchange for pledges from Honorius that peace negotiations would continue in earnest.
While talks were still in progress, however, an attack was carried out on Alaric by a rash warlord named Saros, himself Goth in the employ of Honorius. Only supported by 300 men, this attack failed in its intent, but started a chain-reaction with disastrous results. Alaric immediately broke off negotiations and departed with his whole army from the vicinity of Ravenna, heading south. Sozomen picks up the thread:
Alaric retraced his steps, and returned to Rome, and took it by treachery. He permitted each of his followers to seize as much of the wealth of the Romans as he was able, and to plunder all the houses; but from respect towards the Apostle Peter, he commanded that the large and very spacious church erected around his tomb should be an asylum. This was the only cause which prevented the entire demolition of Rome. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 9]Sozomen then provides an anecdote of a single incident that took place during the sack:
I shall recount a pious action performed by a barbarian, and record the bravery of a Roman lady for the preservation of her chastity. The barbarian and the lady were both Christians, but not of the same heresy, the former being an Arian, and the latter a zealous follower of the Nicene doctrines. A young man of Alaric's soldiers saw this very beautiful woman, and was conquered by her loveliness, and tried to drag her into intercourse; but she drew back, and exerted herself that she might not suffer pollution. He drew his sword, and threatened to slay her; but he was restrained by the passion which he entertained toward her, and merely inflicted a slight wound on her neck. The blood flowed in abundance, and she offered her neck to the sword; for she preferred to die in her chastity than to survive, after having consorted lawfully with a husband, and then to be attempted by another man. When the barbarian repeated his purpose, and followed it with more fearful threats, he accomplished nothing further; struck with wonder at her chastity, he conducted her to the church of Peter the apostle, and gave six pieces of gold for her support to the officers who were guarding the church, and commanded them to keep her for her husband. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 10]A few other anecdotes from the sack may be gleaned from another Christian source, the History Against the Pagans written a few years after the event by Paulus Orosius. As this obscure work and its relationship to the sack of Rome is not particularly well known, I will provide the substantial passages below without comment.
Alaric appeared before trembling Rome, laid siege, spread confusion, and broke into the City. He first, however, gave orders that all those who had taken refuge in sacred places, especially in the basilicas of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, should be permitted to remain inviolate and unmolested; he allowed his men to devote themselves to plunder as much as they wished, but he gave orders that they should refrain from bloodshed.….This scene is recreated in the 19th century German engraving included at the top of this post. Orosius is also instructive with regard to the aftermath of the siege, which he describes as follows:
While the barbarians were roaming through the City, one of the Goths, a powerful man and a Christian, chanced to find in a church building a virgin advanced in years who had dedicated herself to God. When he respectfully asked her for gold and silver, she declared with the firmness of her faith that she had a large amount in her possession and that she would bring it forth at once. She did so. Observing that the barbarian was astonished at the size, weight, and beauty of the riches displayed, even though he did not know the nature of the vessels, the virgin of Christ then said to him: "These are the sacred plate of the Apostle Peter. Presume, if you dare! You will have to answer for the deed. As for me, since I cannot protect them, I dare not keep them."
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The barbarian, stirred to religious awe through the fear of God and by the virgin's faith, sent word of the incident to Alaric. He ordered that all the vessels, just as they were, should be brought back immediately to the basilica of the Apostle, and that the virgin also, together with all Christians who might join the procession, should be conducted thither under escort. The building, it is said, was at a considerable distance from the sacred places, with half the city lying between. Consequently the gold and silver vessels were distributed, each to a different person; they were carried high above the head in plain sight, to the wonder of all beholders. The pious procession was guarded by a double line of drawn swords; Romans and barbarians in concert raised a hymn to God in public. In the sacking of the City the trumpet of salvation sounded far and wide and smote the ears of all with its invitation, even those lying in hiding. From every quarter the vessels of Christ mingled with the vessels of Peter, and many pagans even joined the Christians in making profession, though not in true faith. In this way they escaped, but only for a time, that their confusion might afterward be the greater. The more densely the Roman refugees flocked together, the more eagerly their barbarian protectors surrounded them.… [Orosius, The History Against the Pagans, Book VII, Chapter 39]
The third day after they had entered the City, the barbarians departed of their own accord. They had, it is true, burned a certain number of buildings, but even this fire was not so great as that which had been caused by accident in the seven hundredth year of Rome. Indeed, if I review the conflagration produced during the spectacles of Nero, her own emperor, this later fire, brought on by the anger of the conqueror, will surely bear no comparison with the former, which was kindled by the wantonness of the prince. Nor do I need in a comparison of this sort to mention the Gauls, who, after burning and sacking the City, camped upon her ashes for almost an entire year. Moreover, to remove all doubt that the enemy were permitted to act in this manner in order to chastise the proud, wanton, and blasphemous City, it may be pointed out that her most magnificent sites, which the Goths were unable to set on fire, were destroyed at this time by lightning. [Orosius, The History Against the Pagans, Book VII, Chapter 39]Orosius closes his account of the sack with an interesting comment which seems to indicate that he had visited Rome himself in the aftermath of the sack, or had at least spoken with several eyewitnesses:
Although the memory of the event is still fresh, anyone who saw the numbers of the Romans themselves and listened to their talk would think that "nothing had happened," as they themselves admit, unless perhaps he were to notice some charred ruins still remaining. [Orosius, The History Against the Pagans, Book VII, Chapter 40]To corroborate the point that the sack did not do permanent, irreparable harm to Rome, Sozomen concludes his account by saying of the citizens of Rome: “Those who were there saved, and they were many, rebuilt the city.” [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 9]
It's worth mentioning that both Sozomen and Orosius wrote in the days before the much more devastating sack of Rome by the Vandals in AD 455. At that point it became clear that the prostration the city had suffered under Alaric was not a singular event—and that much worse might be expected in the future.