‘…the whole world perished in one city…’ (St. Jerome)
‘Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia’. (Edward Gibbon)
By the fourth century AD a weakened Rome could no longer withstand the attacks from outside, and finally in 410 the Eternal City was captured by Alaric the Visigoth. The sack of the city was a major shock to both enemies and allies; after all, this was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy. The news of the city’s fall resonated throughout the world, as we see in a passage from Jerome (Letter to Principia 127.12) that details the impact of the news on contemporaries:
While these events were happening in Jerusalem a terrible rumour came from the West. Rome had been besieged and its citizens were forced to buy their lives with gold. Then thus despoiled, they were besieged again so as to lose not only their livelihood but now their very lives. My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my speech. The City that had captured the whole world was itself captured; although it fell to famine before it fell to the sword, and only a few citizens were left to be made captives. In their frenzy the starving had recourse only to hideous food; and they tore each other limb from limb so that they might have flesh to eat. Even the mother did not spare the baby at her breast: ‘Who could unfold the horrors of that night? Who could speak of such slaughter? Who could weep tears to match that suffering? It was the fall of an ancient city that had long ruled an empire. The bodies of the dead lay through all its streets and houses… Everywhere there was fear, and death in many forms.’
At the end Jerome quotes from Vergil’s famous description of the destruction of Troy (Aeneid 2.361-5), taking his readers back to mythical origins of Rome and linking this assault to the desperate fate of another august and ‘ancient city’ that had ruled through the ages.
So Rome was toppled from its pre-eminent position, a proud people were humbled and even reduced to cannibalism by the barbarians. And yet, the city did endure: as it would when Rome was reduced again by the Vandals in 455… and when attacked again in 546… through it all the city endured. Through it all the Romans suffered the hardships and adapted to their changed circumstances. As is made clear even in an alternative account of Alaric’s assault on Rome in 410; consider this passage from Orosius’ History Against the Pagans (many thanks to my colleague Michael Williams for this note):
‘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 the basilicas of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, should be permitted to remain inviolate and unmolested; he allowed his men to plunder as much as they wished, but he gave orders that they should refrain from bloodshed… It was in the 1164th year of the city that Alaric stormed Rome. 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.’ (7.39-40)
Decine and fall, or change and continuity? What are we to make of the ‘end’ of Rome?