Return to The Sack of Rome

Christian Apologia

"Who would believe that Rome, built up by the conquest of the whole world, had collapsed, that the mother of nations had become also their tomb."

Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel (III.Preface)

The Sack of Rome reverberated throughout the ancient world. For Jerome, who was in Bethlehem, it was as if "the bright light of all the world was put out" and "the whole world perished in one city" (Ezekiel I, Preface). Thought by pagans to have been caused by a repudiation of the ancient gods, who had protected Rome for eight hundred years, and the abandonment of their temples and rites, Christians were taunted that their god had allowed this to happen to a Christian city and, moreover, by other Christians: the Arian Visigoths.

To vindicate Christians against such accusations, Augustine argues in De Civitate Die ("The City of God") that the heavenly city is truly eternal whereas the earthly city of men is perishable. In Book III, in particular, he seeks to prove that Rome had suffered as many calamities before the advent of Christianity as after. From the first fratricide of Romulus, the attack of the Gauls, and the Punic and civil wars, Augustine enumerates the wars, captivities, and massacres that had afflicted Rome before the birth of Christ. Rather than being preserved from such woes, Rome has been overwhelmed by them. And yet the pagan gods, no matter their number, did not preserve the city. Why then, asks Augustine, should the Christian God be blamed for not having done soŚ

"But not even such evils as were alone dreaded by the heathen were warded off by their gods, even when they were most unrestrictedly worshipped. For in various times and places before the advent of our Redeemer, the human race was crushed with numberless and sometimes incredible calamities; and at that time what gods but those did the world worship" (III.1).

"Who can number the deities to whom the guardianship of Rome was entrusted? Indigenous and imported, both of heaven, earth, hell, seas, fountains, rivers; and, as Varro says, gods certain and uncertain, male and female: for, as among animals, so among all kinds of gods are there these distinctions. Rome, then, enjoying the protection of such a cloud of deities, might surely have been preserved from some of those great and horrible calamities, of which I can mention but a few. For by the great smoke of her altars she summoned to her protection, as by a beacon-fire, a host of gods, for whom she appointed and maintained temples, altars, sacrifices, priests, and thus offended the true and most high God, to whom alone all this ceremonial is lawfully due" (III.12).

"Yet which of these disasters, suppose they happened now, would not be attributed to the Christian religion by those who thus thoughtlessly accuse us, and whom we are compelled to answer? And yet to their own gods they attribute none of these things, though they worship them for the sake of escaping lesser calamities of the same kind, and do not reflect that they who formerly worshipped them were not preserved from these serious disasters" (III.31).

Augustine spent thirteen years (AD 413-426) in composing his apologia and had completed the first half when, rather than wait any longer, he asked that his disciple Orosius extend the argument to include all great empires and the history of Rome to his own time. To refute the charge that "the present times are unusually beset with calamities for the sole reason that men believe in Christ and worship God while idols are increasingly neglected," as Orosius writes in his Dedication, the Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (AD 418) presents a dreary litany of woe and tribulation, "of the burdens of war, the ravages of disease, the horrors of famine, of terrible earthquakes, extraordinary floods, dreadful eruptions of fire, thunderbolts and hailstorms, and also instances of the cruel miseries caused by parricides and disgusting crimes." Indeed,

"It will appear that whenever Rome conquers and is happy he rest of the world is unhappy and conquered....If these times are to be considered happy because the wealth of a single city was increased, why should they not rather be judged as most unhappy in view of the wretched destruction and downfall of mighty realms, of numerous and civilized peoples?" (V.1)

In demonstrating that the past was worse than the present and the present not as bad as it seemed, Orosius often was obliged to overstate his case. A Goth, confronted by a virginal matron protecting the gold and silver plate in her keeping, sends the plunder to Alaric, who has it all returned to the church, Romans and barbarians alike raising in concert a hymn to God (VII.39). The king of the Visigoths also

"gave orders that all those who had taken refuge in sacred places, especially in the basilicas of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, should be permitted to remain inviolate and unmolested; he allowed his men to devote themselves to plunder as much as they wished, but he gave orders that they should refrain from bloodshed....The third day after they had entered the City, the barbarians departed of their own accord. They had it is true, burned a certain number of buildings, but even this fire was not so great as that which had been caused by accident in the seven hundredth year of Rome" (39).

The fire caused by Alaric, insists Orosius, was not nearly as bad those those set by Nero, and "although the memory of the event is still fresh, anyone who saw the numbers of the Romans themselves and listened to their talk would think that 'nothing had happened,' as they themselves admit, unless perhaps he were to notice some charred ruins still remaining" (XL). One of those gutted buildings was the Basilica Aemilia, considered by Pliny to be among the most beautiful in Rome. Spain, too, is said to be no more ravaged than it had been by the Romans (XLI). The history ends about AD 416, when the Visigoths were warring against the Vandals and Alans in Spain. Indeed, "In view of these things I am ready to allow Christian times to be blamed as much as you please, if you can only point to any equally fortunate period from the foundation of the world to the present day" (XLIII).

Later, Jordanes would be equally apologetic. "When they finally entered Rome, by Alaric's express command they merely sacked it and did not set the city on fire, as wild peoples usually do, nor did they permit serious damage to be done to the holy places" (XXX.156).

Gibbon, however, is not so sanguine. "In the hour of savage licence, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed, the precepts of the gospel seldom influenced the behaviour of the Gothic Christians" (Decline and Fall, XXXI). Nor is Jerome, who, writing in AD 413, laments a very different fate than the one glossed over by Orosius. "The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile. Churches once held sacred are now but heaps of dust and ashes" (Letter, CXXVIII, To Gaudentius).


References: A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol VI: Jerome) (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series I (Vol II: Augustine) (1898) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; The Gothic History of Jordanes (1915) translated by Charles Christopher Mierow; Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995) edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics).

Return to Top of Page

Email