When in 410 Rome was sacked by the Visigoths under Alaric, this came as a shock: how could Rome – that eternal city – be conquered by barbarians? Were the old gods taking revenge on Rome for adapting Christianity? Such questions compelled St. Augustine to write his monumental De Civitate Dei `The City of God’. But were the Visigoths really that barbarian?
Alaric (370 – 410) was a Gothic leader, who wanted to settle down with his band of Gothic mercenaries in Northern Italy, but was prevented by Stilicho – the brilliant Vandal general under Emperor Honorius – in the battle of Verona in 403. Stilicho however saw the usefulness of this Gothic army for his own aspirations within the constant strive between the Eastern and Western parts of the Empire. He and Alaric decided to work together and indeed, when strive again broke out between Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East, Stilicho ordered Alaric and his men to march on against Constantinople. Alaric had reached Epirus and then a reconciliation was made between Honorius and Arcadius. Fine, but Alaric had made considerable costs already and wanted to be compensated by the Roman Senate. He asked 4000 pound of gold, an extremely high sum of money indeed, but Stilicho persuaded the Senate to pay that amount, as the Western Empire was now threatened in the west by the usurpator Constantine iii and Alaric’s men could be very useful. But Stilicho was suspected of high treason by Honorius and despite that Stilicho was his father-in-law, Honorius put him to death. In the aftermath women and children of Goths, Vandals and whatever Germanics there were in Italy were killed, while their husbands served elsewhere as mercenaries.
The treaty with Alaric was abandoned and no money was send. Alaric had some reason to besiege Rome with a 30.000 men strong force… Plagued by starvation, the city consented in giving money and other valuable items.
This happened in 408. In 410 Alaric and his troops controlled large parts of Italy, much to the displeasure of the new emperor, Priscus Atallus. He cut off supplies of grain from North Africa and now Alaric had to deal with shortages of food. He decided to besiege Rome for the third time (I have left out the second time). On the 24th of August for some reason the gates of Rome were opened by slaves and the city lay open for luting. But Alaric was a Christian, be it from the Arian branch, and Rome was for him a sacred city. He forbade the burning of churches and guaranteed the safety of everyone who sought asylum in a church. Looting was allowed, but in no way gold or silver used for Christian worship was allowed to be taken and raping was forbidden. His men (largely) obeyed and this Gothic barbarian, who by the way looked like a Roman and spoke Latin fluently, showed more mercy than a Roman general ever did. The blow to Rome was not so much material, as psychological.
St. Augustine was thankful that the barbarians behaved so disciplined, but was quick to point out that this was not due to their own morality – how could they, as they were despicable Arian heretics? – but that it was God Himself who restrained their barbarian minds.
St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, Book 1,7:
Quidquid ergo uastationis, trucidationis, depraedationis, concremationis, adflictionis in ista recentissima Romana clade commissum est, fecit hoc consuetudo bellorum; quod autem nouo more factum est, quod inusitata rerum facie inmanitas barbara tam mitis apparuit, ut amplissimae basilicae implendae populo cui parceretur eligerentur et decernerentur, ubi nemo feriretur, unde nemo raperetur, quo liberandi multi a miserantibus hostibus ducerentur, unde captiuandi ulli nec a crudelibus hostibus abducerentur: hoc Christi nomini, hoc Christiano tempori tribuendum quisquis non uidet, caecus, quisquis uidet nec laudat, ingratus, quisquis laudanti reluctatur, insanus est. Absit, ut prudens quisquam hoc feritati inputet barbarorum. Truculentissimas et saeuisimas mentes ille terruit, ille frenauit, ille mirabiliter temperauit, qui per prophetam tanto ante dixit: Visitabo in uirga iniquitates eorum et in flagellis peccata eorum; misericordiam autem meam non dispergam ab eis.
vastatio, -onis (f.): devastation
trucidatio, -onis (f.): slaughter
depraedatio, -onis (f.): luting
concrematio, -onis (f.): burning
adflictio, -onis: suffering
clades, -is (f.): calamity
quod inusitata rerum facie inmanitas barbara tam mitis apparuit: (litt.) that in an unusual appearance of things, barbarian savageness appeared so mild
ut amplissimae basilicae implendae populo cui parceretur eligerentur et decernerentur = ut amplissimae basilicae eligerentur et decernerentur implendae populo, cui parceretur
implendus (+ abl.): to be filled with
parco peperci parsum (+ dat.)
decernere decrevi decretum: to decide, destine
ferio: to strike
rapio rapui raptum: to seize and carry away
quo liberandi multi a miserantibus hostibus ducerentur: to which many were brought to be free by enemies having pity
reluctor reluctatus sum (+ dat.): to resist
hoc feritati inputet barbarorum: ascribes this to the fierceness of the barbarians
truculentus: savage, fierce
freno: to restrain
Visitabo…ab eis: Psalm 88, 33-34
in uirga….in flagellis: with a rod…with strokes (This use of in is under influence of the Hebrew text,)
inequitas –atis (f.): transgression (Late Latin)
dispergo dispersi dispersum + ab: to take away (Late Latin)