The sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths has exerted an outsize influence on the Western imagination. It was a devastating event, and sent psychological aftershocks across the empire. On the night of August 24, in the year 410, thousands of Goths made their way into the city through the Porta Salaria, not far from where the American embassy sits today. Rome’s walls were stout, and had recently been reinforced; an accomplice on the inside may have opened the gates. The invaders ravaged the city for three full days before departing with captives and plunder. According to legend, they took away sacred trophies the Romans had themselves looted from the Second Temple in Jerusalem more than three centuries earlier.
Rome’s defenses had not been breached in 800 years—not since a sack by the Gauls at the beginning of the fourth century b.c., long before Rome became an imperial power. News of what the Goths had done spread quickly. The sack was seen as a portent—of the end of the empire or even, as some apocalyptic Christian writers saw it, the end of God’s earthly creation. Saint Jerome wrote an emotional letter (“as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance”) from faraway Bethlehem: “The city that once captured the hearts and minds of the world has been captured!” Saint Augustine urged Christians to flee the “moral disease” of secular Rome and put their faith in a heavenly city that beckoned from beyond this life. A memory of the sacking shivered down the ages. “This awful catastrophe of Rome,” Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “filled the astonished empire with grief and terror.” Victorian painters turned again and again to the subject, slathering pots of paint across acres of canvas. The depictions are disturbingly romantic: seminude invaders among smoldering monuments, preening with bloodlust and concupiscence. The sack has resonance to this day. The historian Niall Ferguson invoked it in a column published after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, noting: “This is exactly how civilizations fall.”