The Crimean War (1853-1856) was the first war in which the home front could follow the outcome of the various battles within days, thanks to the invention of the telegraph. Modern technology makes it possible that we can watch a war life on television. Not so in Antiquity: it took two years before the news of the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410 reached Saint Jerome, who was at that time at Bethlehem. It was an utter shock, when slowly and in bits news about this this disaster reached him. As a theologian he immediately recalled to mind Isaiah and the Psalms, but Jerome was also deeply learned in classical literature – his first love which he later so resented – and he could not help but quote Vergil too.
Saint Jerome, Letter 127, 12
Dum haec aguntur in Iebus, terribilis de Occidente rumor adfertur, obsideri Romam et auro salutem civium redimi spoliatosque rursum circumdari ut post substantiam vitam quoque amitterent. Haeret vox et singultus intercipiunt verba dictantis. Capitur Urbs, quae totum cepit Orbem, immo fame perit ante quam gladio et vix pauci qui caperentur, inventi sunt. Ad nefandos cibos erupit esurientium rabies et sua invicem membra laniarunt, dum mater non parcit lactanti infantiae et recipit utero, quem paulo ante effuderat. Nocte Moab capta est, nocte cecidit murus eius. Deus, venerunt gentes in hereditatem tuam, polluerunt templum sanctum tuum, posuerunt Hierusalem in pomorum custodiam, posuerunt cadavera servorum tuorum escas volatilibus caeli, carnes sanctorum tuorum bestiis terrae. Effuderunt sanguinem ipsorum sicut aquam in circuitu Hierusalem et non erat qui sepeliret.
Quis cladem illlus noctis, quis funera fando
Explicet , aut possit lacrimis aequare dolorem?
Urbs antiqua ruit multos dominata per annos,
Plurima perque vias sparguntur inertia passim
Corpora , perque domos et plurima mortis imago.
Iebus: name for Jerusalem, cf. Jebusites
obsideo obsedi obsessum: to besiege
redimo redemi redemptum: to buy (in 408 the besieged Romans tried to buy peace with a large amount of gold.)
spolio (-are): to rob plunder
substantia: resources, wealth
haereo haesi: to stick
singultus -us (m.): a sobbing
dictantis: for me dictating this letter
fames famis (f.): hunger
immo….ante quam: (The City) has fallen indeed before by hunger rather than by the sword
qui caperentur: who could be taken captive
nefandos cibus: heinous nutriment
erumpo erupi eruptum: to burst out. (Here used as a vivid and rhetorical description for what the esurientium rabies (the madness of the hungry) has led to.)
lanio (-are): to tear in pieces, butcher
parco peperci parsum (+ dat.): to save, spare
lacto: to suck milk
infantia: children (collective use of the singular.)
dum..effuderat: This rhetoric is far beyond what we would nowadays consider palpable…
recipit (in) utero: received in her belly
effundo effudi effusum: to pour out, give girth
Nocte eius: Is. 15, 1
Deus...sepeliret: Ps. 79, 1-3
Posuerunt custodiam: They have turned …into an orchard (pomorum custodiam. This translation is from the Septuagint, which has ὀπωροφυλάκιον. The Hebrew has a different word, meaning `ruims’.)
volatilibus cœli: for the birds of the sky
circuitus –us (m.): surrounding
Hierusalem: Hebrew words are not declined
Quis…imago: Verg. Aen. II 361-365
clades cladis (f.): destruction, slaughter
fando: by speaking
lacrimis aequare dolorem: i.e. there are not enough tears to equal the pain
spargo sparsi sparsum: to scatter
iners inertis: motionless
plurima imago: the manifold image, face
Sack of Rome by Alaric - sacred vessels are brought to a church for safety. Picture from a French manuscript (1475)
Translation: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. (1893) (old fashioned, sometimes misleading and incomplete, but the only available on internet )
12. Whilst these things were happening in Jebus a dreadful rumour came from the West. Rome had been besieged and its citizens had been forced to buy their lives with gold. Then thus despoiled they had been besieged again so as to lose not their substance only but their lives. My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken; nay more famine was beforehand with the sword and but few citizens were left to be made captives. In their frenzy the starving people had recourse to hideous food; and tore each other limb from limb that they might have flesh to eat. Even the mother did not spare the babe at her breast. In the night was Moab taken, in the night did her wall fall down. Isaiah 15:1 O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; your holy temple have they defiled; they have made Jerusalem an orchard. The dead bodies of your servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of your saints unto the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem; and there was none to bury them.
Who can set forth the carnage of that night?
What tears are equal to its agony?
Of ancient date a sovran city falls;
And lifeless in its streets and houses lie
Unnumbered bodies of its citizens.
In many a ghastly shape does death appear.