Rome Fell but a Christian Classic Arose
On this day, August 24, 410, the city of Rome, once master of the Mediterranean, fell to Alaric and his Visigoth armies. Someone opened the city gate from within. The Medieval historian Procopius says this may have been done by slaves that Alaric had treacherously given as a token of friendship to the Senators or by the servants of an aristocratic woman who felt the city had suffered long enough.
Afterward, refugees showed up all around the Mediterranean world. In Palestine, Bible translator Jerome described formerly haughty women who would now be happy to work for a crust of bread. He wrote letters lamenting the fall of the imperial city. Like everyone else, he could not avoid the symbolism of the event. “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…”
In the sack of Rome, Christians died alongside pagans. Some Christian women suffered rape, although the Visigoths claimed to be Christians, too. Some of these women, following the historical example of the famous pagan girl, Lucretia, killed themselves for shame. Others fled to North Africa as refugees, where they were taunted by pagans, who asked them why their God did not protect them or else accused them of cowardice for not killing themselves.
Why had Christians suffered in the taking of Rome? According to the Bible, God would have spared Sodom if there had been just ten righteous souls in it. Yet here was a city with thousands of Christians–a major church center, too–and yet God allowed it to be ravaged. Pagans blamed Christian pacifists.
Various people put this question to the greatest living Christian thinker of the day. Augustine of Hippo responded by writing a masterpiece, The City of God and the City of Man. This was the world’s first “modern” history in the sense that it offered an account of world history with a teleological explanation–that is, an explanation showing that events have “purpose,” or destination.
Augustine took a different approach than Jerome. Giving a Christian interpretation to the events, he pointed out that the barbarian invaders had spared most of the churches and that even pagans had taken refuge in the Christian churches. Christians had always suffered and would always suffer, in this world, he noted. To phrase it in modern cliche, God had never promised the Christian a bed of roses.
To Augustine’s way of thinking, the fall of Rome was less important than it seemed to most of his contemporaries. What was really going on was a far deeper warfare–the war between God’s kingdom and man’s; if God’s kingdom was not clearly distinguishable in this world, it is because not everyone who says they are a Christian really is. To the heathen who blamed Christianity for the downfall of the Roman Empire, Augustine showed that pagan practices actually were at fault for the weakness of the empire.
In book Two, Chapter four, Augustine asked, “…Why were the gods so negligent as to allow the morals of their worshippers to sink to so low a depth?…why did not those gods…lay down moral precepts that would help their devotees to lead a decent life?”
In chapter twenty-one of the same book he notes: “However great and good your natural gifts may be, it takes true piety to make them pure and perfect; with impurity they merely end in loss and pain.”
Augustine’s long and loosely argued book was finished years after the sack of Rome. Alaric himself had died before it was done. It colored all later historical writing. That much good, at least, came out of Alaric’s sack of Rome.
Dan Graves, MSL
On This Day in Church History <Christianity@crosswalkmail.com>
- Augustine. The City of God. Edited with an introduction by Vernon J. Bourke. Garden City, New York: Image, 1958.
- Gibbon, Edward. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter XXIX. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.
- Portalie, Eugene. “Works of St. Augustine of Hippo.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- —————-“Life of St. Augustine of Hippo.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Jerome. “Letter CXXVII.” http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001127.htm
- Procopius of Caesarea. “Alaric’s Sack of Rome, 410 CE.” Ancient History Sourcebook.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.