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from issue no. 06/07 - 2010


“The barbarous ferocity turned out to be mild”

So says St Augustine of the Sack of Rome in August 410, in De Civitate Dei I, 7

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Among the many centenaries which fall this year, there is also that of what is known as the Sack of Rome in August 410. A fateful event. It was the first time that after centuries and centuries the walls of Rome were breached. It is not its epochal character that interests us here, however, but rather the light it casts on the present and on our recent past.
To begin with let us clear away a possible misunderstanding that was already clarified by the eighteenth-century historians: the incursion was not an attack by aliens who pillaged out of a supposed pure wickedness (see Alessandro Barbero’s recent Barbari. Immigrati, profughi, deportati nell’Impero romano [Barbarians. Immigrants, refugees, deportees in the Roman Empire]). The barbarians who sacked Rome “had been until recently a Roman legion to whom rights had been granted after they had been defeated, who had been given land and homes,” writes Claudian (In Eutropium), a contemporary pagan poet.
Nor were they foe to Christianity.

St Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome; in the background, the opening words of the <I>De civitate Dei</I> in a 15th century codex preserved in the Chapter Library of Verona

St Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome; in the background, the opening words of the De civitate Dei in a 15th century codex preserved in the Chapter Library of Verona

The background
Alaric, the protagonist of the Sack of 410, was a Goth leader of Christian faith (“quidem christianus sed professione haereticus”, wrote Isidore of Seville in his Historia Gothorum) who from 375 had lived as a feoderatus, that is bound by a pact with the Empire, and as such had fought in the army of Theodosius against insurgents (they were) contesting imperial authority and engaged in a struggle for power in the West. He was one of many barbarian officers who had contributed to the preservation of the Empire. Men such as Butheric, the barbarian magister militum of Illyria (today’s fated Balkans), whose killing in Thessalonica in 390 led to the bloody reprisal of Theodosius.
Theodosius, however, dying in January of 395, left the empire to his two young sons Honorius and Arcadius, putting them under the protection of the charismatic Stilicho, a semi-barbarian general who was in some way to watch over them and keep them united.
That was why he believed he had to intervene in Illyricum in that same year against a threatened devastation by the Visigoths under Alaric, evidently not pleased by the way the Empire was respecting the terms of agreement. But Stilicho’s action was repudiated by the Eastern court which rejected the policy of compromise and independently set in motion a decided anti-barbarian policy.
The reaction of the barbarians was unleashed against the weakest part of the Empire. Alaric, in fact, having ravaged Greece, moved into the lands north of the Adriatic and by 401 was threatening Milan, where Honorius held court.
Stilicho defeated Alaric several times, but did not disperse his forces. Not only that. Unable to fight on multiple fronts (in the meantime the Rhine frontier had given way and Britain was abandoned by the legions), he sought an agreement with Alaric, getting the Senate to approve a substantial indemnity and offering him military jurisdiction in the controversial Balkans: the death of Arcadius in 408, in fact, seemed to reopen the road to a possible unitary authority of the Empire based on the West. But then Honorius and his advisers in Milan opposed the deal in their conviction that no movement of the pawns would really alter the playing board. “Suborned by ‘Milanese’ propaganda” – as Santo Mazzarino wrote in that mine of information and still relevant insight L’Impero romano – the imperial troops rebelled against Stilicho and killed all his officials under the eyes of Honorius. Stilicho was left with no choice but civil war, which would have meant launching the federated legions loyal to him against the Roman imperial army. He did not take that road. He consented to losing his head in August 408, after being dragged out of a church in Ravenna where he sought sanctuary. An act more barbaric than the man who suffered it. Salvianus, a monk of Marseilles, wrote some decades later: “Roman humanitas is sought among the barbarians, in fact one can no longer bear the barbarous inhumanity that holds sway among the Romans” (De gubernatione Dei).
The backlash of Stilicho’s death, however, was the defection of many federated barbarians, and most of all a break with Alaric, treated by the court of Honorius as an enemy.
That’s the background.

The Sack of Rome
The siege and capture of Rome arose out of that. They were nothing more than a direct form of pressure and blackmail on Honorius by Alaric, which develops in three phases between the summer of 408 and that of 410.
At first, having rapidly marched down the Via Flaminia, Alaric took Portus and the Tiber, blocking the supplies that came to Rome by sea from North Africa.
In the besieged city, on the suggestion of some fortune-tellers from Tuscany, there was a pathetic recourse to pagan rituals, for which, paradoxically enough, permission was asked of Pope Innocent, who consented. Whereas in Ravenna, where he had moved, Honorius and his advisers were intent on devising a wholly “Catholic” policy (see André Piganiol’s Le Sac de Rome), more concerned to punish heretics and to exclude non-Catholics from the center of power, leaving Rome to its fate. There are many ways of being Catholic: a nuance censored by Giorgio Falco in his classic La Santa Romana Repubblica, where in chapter III, “Germani. Stilicone e Alarico”, the term “Catholic” is used only to designate the tiers parti.
In the end, forced by famine and epidemic, the Romans paid Alaric the indemnity he had looked for in vain from Honorius. The City was free again and negotiations resumed with the imperial court in Ravenna. But despite Alaric then limiting his demands to the possibility of settling his people between Austria and Carinthia, no agreement was reached. Rome was again besieged and then, to raise the level of threat, Alaric created an anti-emperor in the person of Attalus: a pagan who got himself baptized Arian for the occasion, whom Alaric used only to get himself elevated to the office of commander of the whole imperial army, while the former nourished dreams of glory, taking himself to be the hero of the salvation of Rome. But at the hand of those same officials who had done away with Stilicho and had received Africa in reward, Rome was starving again, this time as a tactical move against Alaric and his puppet emperor. (The crucial strategic importance to Rome of Africa explains – in brackets – why Alaric, after the Sack of Rome, was to move south, eventually dying in Calabria from where he hoped to cross to Sicily and then, of course, to Africa). In addition Ataulfus, Alaric’s brother-in-law, was treacherously attacked by other Germanic warriors in the pay of Honorius. There are many ways of being Arians and Goths. join Alaric. Jacques Le Goff writes in the first pages of The civilization of the medieval West: “The truth is that the barbarians benefited from the complicity, active and passive, of the mass of the Roman population. The social structure of the Empire, where the working classes were increasingly being squeezed by a minority of the rich and powerful, explains the success of the barbarian invasions”.

A view of the inside of the Aurelian Walls near the Porta Salaria, with walkway and tower. The Goths entered Rome through Porta Salaria [© Archivio Foto Luce]

A view of the inside of the Aurelian Walls near the Porta Salaria, with walkway and tower. The Goths entered Rome through Porta Salaria [© Archivio Foto Luce]

Something new happened, however
Violence, however, was the exception and not the rule. The difference basically lies there, and it resulted from the specific provisions made by Alaric primarily to protect people’s lives and to keep the basilicas inviolable. So much so that a few years later Orosius could say in his Historiae adversus paganos that virtually nothing happened in Rome: “nihil factum”. If this is a rhetorical exaggeration and a literary flavor is given to the episode in which he tells of a virgin who, as well as saving herself from a barbarian demanding gold and silver of her, showed the sacred vessels of the cult of the apostle Peter, and so was also able to save the vessels of Christ (so Orosius calls the Christians) and the pagans who joined the procession escorting the valuables back to the Basilica – the unexpected convergence towards salvation of Romans, Christians and pagans, and barbarians has nothing rhetorical about it but is quite biblical (both Old Testament, cf. Gen 18, 17-33, and New Testament, cf. Rm 9, 22-33) and Catholic. A coming together that did not exclude anyone because accomplished at the right moment by the mercy of God that saw to it that each played their part: “So that it might be protected, the pious procession was surrounded on every side by drawn swords; singing together, Romans and barbarians publicly chanted a hymn to God; the trumpet of salvation echoed far in the ravage of the City, and invited and pushed all, even those who were holed up in hiding; the vessels of Christ [the Christians] came running from all sides towards the vessels of Peter and many pagans mingled with the Christians, if not in faith, in its profession: and for that reason the more they mixed in the more at the right moment they escaped danger; the more the Romans sought safety by gathering together in large numbers, the more their barbarian protectors spread around them. O sacred and ineffable decision of divine justice!” ( Historiae adversus paganos VII, 39).
The defense that Augustine makes of the Christian faith, accused by the pagans of being the origin of the disaster of Rome (which was the occasion that gave rise to the De civitate Dei), is to be understood in this sense. Not as a dialectical and ideological response. One should reread book I, where Augustine sets out the purpose of the work. It all hinges on the contrast between the futility of the gods of Rome who need, indeed rely on men, and the name of Christ, which acted on its own precisely through those barbarians who, though fierce, had humility (“misericordia et humilitas etiam immanium barbarorum), the virtue, along with faith (“ex fide vivens”), of the city of God wayfaring on earth that does not take to itself what comes from God.
Augustine does not deny that what happened in Rome was ruinous, but dwells on the fact that, amidst all the possible devastation, something new appeared that derived directly from Christ: “In the recent downfall of Rome, all the ruin, the killings, the looting, the fires, the laying waste were produced by what is usual in war, but the new thing that happened, namely that the barbarous ferocity, in a hitherto unheard of fashion, turned out to be so mild, that very large basilicas were chosen and designated to be filled with people to be protected, where no one was killed, no one taken prisoner, where many could be brought by merciful enemies to be released, where no one could be captured and made prisoner not even by cruel enemies – there are none who do not see that this is to be attributed to the name of Christ...; it was He who marvelously tamed, curbed, soothed such truculent and cruel souls, He who long ago predicted through the mouth of the Prophet: ‘I shall punish their iniquity with the rod and their sins with scourges, but I shall not withdraw my mercy from them’”( De Civitate Dei I, 7).
“Mercy always has the better in judgment”, writes St James. Even in historical judgment, say we.

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