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Today is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric (August 24th, 410 AD). For all of its historical import, the sack actually does not seem to have been particularly violent in comparison with other similar events. Alaric had laid siege to Rome twice before and he had been paid off both times with gold, silver, and pepper. When a rival barbarian faction attacked his tribe, he returned to Rome for a third siege to garner funds for an exodus across the Mediterranean. Unexpectedly, a group of slaves threw open the gate to the Via Salaria, an ancient road which connected Rome to the Adriatic. Visigoths poured into the city, but they were, after all, Arian Christians who thought of themselves as Romans. There was minimal rape, murder, and bloodshed. They stripped some of the public buildings of their lavish trappings and ransacked wealthy households and headed off to repopulate Western Africa (at which task they failed–the Visigoths ended up in Spain).
Although hardly a genocide, the event was a watershed moment for classical society. Rome, the center of thought, government, and civilization—the city that had not fallen to an outside enemy for 800 years—was unable to mount a defense against a ragged group of barbarians and vagabonds. St. Jerome, the man of letters who held such influence over Western thought during the dark ages, wrote:” It is the end of the world, I cannot write for the tears.” The Western portion of the Roman Empire, already reeling from centuries of civil war and widespread agricultural crisis, staggered on for a few decades before being cut apart into sundry vassalages (which constituted the seeds of modern European kingdom states).
Frequent readers of this blog will know my interest in the concept of “gothic”. Although the Goths certainly have their own history prior to the sack of Rome, that event enshrined “gothic” as a broader social concept. There have been plenty of barbarian tribes, but when Alaric looted the eternal city, he ensured that the name of his people would remain infamous. A millennium later, Renaissance writers, enthralled with the glories of classical society, used the word “gothic” to describe aspects of the intervening period which seemed old-fashioned, barbaric, cruel, and unenlightened. Vasari used the word to pejoratively describe art and architecture from before Giotto (or from outside Italy). Once “gothic” had become synonymous with “Medieval”, it then came to be associated with gloom, mystery and the grotesque. Victorian writers, scholars, artists, and architects found reason to celebrate these qualities with spooky novels, pre-Raphaelite painting, and creepy mansions. In the contemporary era, “gothic” can mean any of these things or it can be applied to the contemporary goth counterculture movement. But whatever the word means, it always seems to indicate something in opposition to the Greco-Roman, whig-liberal Western norm.