Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Fall of Rome

"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."
Jerome, Letter CXXVII (To Principia)

The city of Rome was the largest, richest and most famous city of the ancient world. Generation after generation of barbarians heard fabulous tails of Rome ’s untold riches. Even today the splendor of Rome remains fresh in our minds, to which the popularity of HBO’s series can attest. So when Alaric king of the Visigoths rebels against the Roman Empire, his first thought is to lead his people against Rome herself. The walls of Rome proved to strong for his barbarian army to breach. So he surrounded the city, in an effort to starve the Roman’s into submission. Rome has long been dependant on grain shipments from Egypt to feed it’s citizens. It was simply too populous a city for the surrounding countryside to support. The Visigoths besieged Rome for two years causing wide spread famine. Two years of enforced isolation drove foods prices to such heights that even a pound of dog meat was beyond the means of all but the richest citizens. The Roman administration resorted to feeding the poor with bread made mostly of sawdust. Not surprisingly, the poor began to die of starvation. People turned to cannibalism, feasting on the dead in order to live. Cannibalism became so wide spread that during one gladiatorial game, the crowd demanded the flesh of the fallen gladiators, crying out “how much per pound for that meat!” The Visigoths themselves where driven from their pillaging of Rome after only three days for want of food. Here is what Procopius wrote about the sack of Rome in 545 CE, a generation after Rome’s fall. He is one of the leading sources about this event. Most scholars consider him to be the last of the great ancient historians.

After much time had been spent by Alaric king of the Visigoths in the siege, and he had not been able either by force or by any other device to capture the place, he formed the following plan. Among the youths in the army whose beards had not yet grown, but who had just come of age, he chose out three hundred whom he knew to be of good birth and possessed of valor beyond their years, and told them secretly that he was about to make a present of them to certain of the patricians in Rome, pretending that they were slaves. And he instructed them that, as soon as they got inside the houses of those men, they should display much gentleness and moderation and serve them eagerly in whatever tasks should be laid upon them by their owners; and he further directed them that not long afterwards, on an appointed day at about midday, when all those who were to be their masters would most likely be already asleep after their meal, they should all come to the gate called Salarian and with a sudden rush kill the guards, who would have no previous knowledge of the plot, and open the gates as quickly as possible. After giving these orders to the youths, Alaric straightway sent ambassadors to the members of the senate, stating that he admired them for their loyalty toward their emperor, and that he would trouble them no longer, because of their valor and faithfulness, with which it was plain that they were endowed to a remarkable degree, and in order that tokens of himself might be preserved among men both noble and brave, he wished to present each one of them with some domestics. After making this declaration and sending the youths not long afterwards, he commanded the barbarians to make preparations for the departure, and he let this be known to the Romans. And they heard his words gladly, and receiving the gifts began to be exceedingly happy, since they were completely ignorant of the plot of the barbarian. For the youths, by being unusually obedient to their owners, averted suspicion, and in the camp some were already seen moving from their positions and raising the siege, while it seemed that the others were just on the point of doing the very same thing. But when the appointed day had come, Alaric armed his whole force for the attack and was holding them in readiness close by the Salarian Gate; for it happened that he had encamped there at the beginning of the siege. And all the youths at the time of the day agreed upon came to this gate, and, assailing the guards suddenly, put them to death; then they opened the gates and received Alaric and the army into the city at their leisure. [Aug. 24, 410 A.D.] And they set fire to the houses, which were next to the gate, among which was also the house of Sallust, who in ancient times wrote the history of the Romans, and the greater part of this house has stood half-burned up to my time; and after plundering the whole city and destroying the most of the Romans, they moved on.

At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Rome had perished. And he cried out and said, "And yet it has just eaten from my hands!" For he had a very large cock, Rome by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: "But I, my good fellow, I thought that my fowl Rome had perished." So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.

But some say that Rome was not captured in this way by Alaric, but that Proba, a woman of very unusual eminence in wealth and in fame among the Roman senatorial class, felt pity for the Romans who were being destroyed by hunger and the other suffering they endured; for they were already even tasting each other's flesh; and seeing that every good hope had left them, since both the river and the harbor were held by the enemy, she commanded her domestics, they say, to open the gates by

From the History of the Wars, The Vandalic War, Books III and IV (of 8) by Procopius of Caesarea, Translated by H. B. Dewing (Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg)

Though the pillaging of Rome socked the ancient world, it was not particularly violent. Edward Gibbon stats in his book The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire that only one Roman Senator lost his live during the sack. The Visigoths where a Christian nation, so they spared many of Rome’s famous churches during their rampage. Here is an antidote from about pious actions of the Visigoths from The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Chapter XXXI.

Amidst the horrors of a nocturnal tumult several of the Christian Goths displayed the fervor of a recent conversion; and some instances of their uncommon piety and moderation are related, and perhaps adorned, by the zeal of ecclesiastical writers. While the barbarians roamed through the city in quest of prey, the humble dwelling of an aged virgin, who had devoted her life to the service of the altar, was forced open by one of the powerful Goths. He immediately demanded, though in civil language, all the gold and silver in her possession, and was astonished at the readiness with which she conducted him to a splendid hoard of massy plate of the richest materials and the most curious workmanship. The barbarian viewed with wonder and delight this valuable acquisition, till he was interrupted by a serious admonition, addressed to him in the following words: "These," said she, "are the consecrated vessels belonging to St. Peter: if you presume to touch them, the sacrilegious deed will remain on your conscience. For my part, I dare not keep what I am unable to defend." The Gothic captain, struck with reverential awe, dispatched a messenger to inform the king of the treasure, which he had discovered, and received a peremptory order from Alaric, that all the consecrated plate and ornaments should be transported, without damage or delay, to the church of the apostle. From the extremity, perhaps, of the Quirinal hill to the distant quarter of the Vatican, a numerous detachment of Goths, marching in order of battle through the principal streets, protected with glittering arms the long train of their devout companions who bore aloft on their heads the sacred vessels of gold and silver, and the martial shouts of the barbarians were mingled with the sound of religious psalmody. From all the adjacent houses a crowd of Christians hastened to join this edifying procession, and a multitude of fugitives, without distinction of age or rank, or even of sect, had the good fortune to escape to the secure and hospitable sanctuary of the Vatican. The learned work concerning the City of God was professedly composed by St. Augustin, to justify the ways of Providence in the destruction of the Roman greatness. He celebrates with peculiar satisfaction this memorable triumph of Christ, and insults his adversaries by challenging them to produce some similar example of a town taken by storm, in which the fabulous gods of antiquity had been able to protect either themselves or their deluded votaries.

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