Sack of Rome 410 CE

Sack of Rome 410 CE


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In August of 410 CE Alaric the Gothic king accomplished something that had not been done in over eight centuries: he and his army entered the gates of imperial Rome and sacked the city. Although the city and, for a time, the Roman Empire would survive, the plundering left an indelible mark that could not be erased. Alaric and his army marched through the Salarian Gates and pillaged a city that had earlier suffered famine and starvation. Although they left churches such as St. Peter and St. Paul untouched, the army destroyed pagan temples, burned the old Senate House, and even kidnapped Emperor Honorius' sister Galla Placidia.

The Goths

Since the early days of the Empire, Rome had continually struggled with the protection of its frontier borders. So, when the Gothic tribes - the Tervingi and Greuthungi - sought refuge from the marauding Huns, the Romans contemplated the options and eventually allowed them to settle on the Balkan frontier, of course, at a cost. Alliances were made and alliances were broken. Many in Rome remained unhappy with the decision and viewed the Goths as nothing more than barbarians although most of them were, in fact, Christian. Unreasonable demands were made of the new settlers, and they suffered at the hands of unscrupulous commanders. Facing starvation due to inadequate provisions and a lengthy famine, the Goths rose up against the Romans and began a long series of raids and pillaging of the countryside.

Theodosius reunited (for the last time) both the east & west & banned all forms of pagan worship.

The differences between the two culminated in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. Emperor Valens (r. 364-378 CE) who had only sought only personal glory was soundly defeated. It was a defeat that not only cost the lives of many veteran soldiers but also revealed the military weaknesses of the west. Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE) replaced Valens as emperor and another alliance in 382 CE was signed. This new alliance offered land for the Gothic setters in exchange for their providing soldiers for the Roman army. With the defeat of Emperor Magnus Maximus (r. 383-388 CE) in Gaul, Theodosius reunited (for the last time) both the east and west and immediately banned all forms of pagan worship. It appeared that Rome and the Gothic tribes might be, for a time, finally at peace.

Shadow Emperors in the West

With the Theodosius' death in 395 CE, his two young sons Arcadius (r. 395-408 CE) and Honorius (r. 395-423 CE) were named as his successors - Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west. Since Honorius was only ten at the time, Flavius Stilicho, the magister militum or commander-in-chief, was named as regent. The half-Vandal half-Roman Stilicho's attempt to assume regency over the east failed. It was something that would plague him for years to come.

Unfortunately for the west, the emperors from Valens to Romulus Augustus (r. 475-476 CE) proved to be highly incompetent, isolating themselves from forming policy and becoming increasingly dominated by the military. They were sometimes referred to as the “shadow emperors.” Honorius did not even live in Rome but had a palace at Ravenna. The east and west began to gradually drift apart as the west became more and more susceptible to attack. The weakness of the west became evident when in 406 CE Vandals, Alans, and Suevi crossed the frozen Rhine into Gaul, eventually marching further south into Spain. The Roman troops who normally defended Gaul had been withdrawn to face a usurper from Britain, the soon-to-be Constantine III. With a government in crisis, the time had finally come for the Gothic tribes to rise up against the Romans.

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Stilicho

The Goths had never completely trusted the Romans holding to their promises of 382 CE and hoped to rewrite the old alliance made with Theodosius. The Goths especially disliked the clause making them provide soldiers to the Roman army. It was a condition they believed would severely weaken their own defences. The disparity between Rome and the Goths grew, forcing them to return to the practice of ransacking the Balkan countryside. Although long desired by Rome, this was an area that was technically part of the empire that belonged to the east. Still hoping to rewrite the alliance, the Goths changed their strategy and planned to forge a new deal with Arcadius; a plan that would ultimately fail.

Despite their differences, Stilicho hoped to appease Alaric with a new alliance: rights in exchange for securing the frontier border against future invasions.

Alaric, who had fought at the Battle of the River Frigidus and even allied himself with Stilicho, turned his attentions to the west and Emperor Honorius, eventually leading to the invasion of Italy in 402 CE. His demands for peace were simple: he wanted to be named a magister militum - a title that would give him prestige and help the Gothic status in the empire, - food subsidies, and a percentage of the crops raised in the region. Stilicho, speaking on the behalf of Honorius, said no to all of the demands. With no hope for a new alliance, the two sides clashed twice with no clear winner, both sides suffering heavy losses. Alaric was forced to retreat having been cut off from his supplies.

Despite their differences, Stilicho hoped to appease Alaric with a new alliance: rights in exchange for securing the frontier border against future invasions. In the new proposal Alaric and Stilicho would work together to secure the Balkans for the west. Stilicho had had his eye on the Balkans since being named Honorius' regent. He believed the Balkans would provide additional (and much needed) troops for the Roman forces in the west. Alaric moved eastward and waited for his new ally to arrive. Unfortunately, Stilicho would never arrive. He was detained; the Gothic king Radagaisus crossed the Danube and invaded Italy only to be defeated and executed, the Vandals and their allies crossed the Rhine into Gaul, and Constantine III, the usurper from Britain, was declared emperor by his army and soon had Gaul and Spain under his control. Stilicho was overwhelmed and desperately needed money to wage war against the invaders. Alaric, still waiting in the east, also demanded money. His new ally, Stilicho, appealed to the Roman Senate to approve a possible peace with Alaric. Unfortunately, the hawkish Roman senator Olympius disagreed and wanted only war.

Sack of Rome

All the problems appeared to be the fault of Stilicho. Accusations were also aimed at Stilicho, questioning his intent in the east. Honorius, now listening more to Olympus than Stilicho, agreed, and his former regent was arrested and executed. The only real chance for peace with Alaric was gradually disappearing. Alaric took the death of Stilicho to be a sign of things to come and turned his attention to Italy; towns such as Concordia, Cremona, and Aviminum soon fell to his army. Instead of obviously seizing the Ravenna home of Honorius, he turned his attention to Rome, believing it would be a more suitable hostage. He surrounded all 13 gates. Supplies in the city soon ran low: food was rationed, corpses littered the streets, a stench filled the air, but Honorius refused to help. The Tiber was cut off from access to the port of Ostia and supplies of grain from North Africa. Rome became a “ghost town.”

With the arrival of Alaric's brother Athaulf with additional forces of Goths and Huns, Rome, who had vowed to fight to the bitter end, realized a truce must be reached. Alaric agreed to lift the siege in exchange for 12 tons of gold, 13 tons of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 fleeces, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. The Roman Senate was desperate: statues had to be melted and the treasury was completely emptied, but the siege was over and supplies began arriving.

Although Alaric and his brother had riches, they still hoped to negotiate a new alliance with Honorius. The Senate agreed and the reluctant emperor appeared willing to talk. Representatives from the Senate were sent to Ravenna. In reality, however, the talks were only a delaying tactic until Roman troops arrived from the east. Alaric would soon learn of the treachery behind the emperor and his commander Olympius. Although Honorius agreed in principle to much of an alliance, he agreed with Olympius that any land grant would spell disaster for Rome. Land grants would mean no revenue for the empire, no revenue meant no army, and no army meant no empire. While there still appeared to be some hope, Alaric and his army withdrew from the city.

Honorius used the Gothic army's departure to dispatch 6,000 soldiers to Rome. Alaric spotted the Romans, pursued them, and wiped out all 6,000 troops. About the same time, Athaulf and his Gothic force were attacked by the Romans under the leadership of Olympius. Losing over 1,000 men, Athaulf reorganized and attacked the Roman forces, causing Olympius to retreat to Ravenna. Honorius was desperate and quickly dismissed Olympius who fled to Dalmatia.

Honorius turned to his commander-in-chief Jovius who invited Alaric and Athaulf to Ariminium to negotiate a new alliance. Jovius had been instrumental in forging the alliance between Stilicho and Alaric. The Romans had no alternative. If they fought Goths they faced the possibility of diminishing the Roman forces and thereby opening the door for an invasion from Constantine. Although he had little trust in the emperor's promises, Alaric still hoped for a settlement. Alaric's terms were simple: an annual payment of gold, an annual supply of grain, and land for the Goths in the provinces of Venetia, Noricum, and Dalmatia. In addition he wanted a generalship in the Roman army. The reply was yes to the grain supply but no to the land and generalship. Alaric left the meeting, threatening to sack and burn Rome. After a few days to regain composure, Alaric wanted an end to war and said he would be willing to settle for land in Noricum. Honorius completely refused, leaving the enraged Goth with little alternative but to march on Rome.

With a little help from inside the city, the Salarian gate was opened, and Alaric & his army of 40,000 marched into the city.

A surprise attack by the Roman commander Sarus left little hope for any truce. With a little help from inside the city, the Salarian gate was opened, and Alaric and his army of 40,000 marched into the city. While leaving the Christian churches untouched and those seeking refuge inside alone, the Goths raided the pagan temples and the homes of the rich, demanding gold and silver. Many houses of the rich and some, not all, public buildings were burned. Historian Peter Heather in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire claims that Alaric did not want to the sack the city. He had been outside the city for months and could have sacked it at any time. His only goal was, as it always had been, to negotiate a new alliance, rewriting the one forged in 382 CE. Others, however, saw the sacking of the city in a different light. Heather wrote that many non-Christians believed that fall of the city was due to the abandonment of the imperial religion while Saint Augustine, speaking on behalf of the Church, saw it as an indication of the empire's centuries-old desire to dominate.

Aftermath

The next two decades would bring drastic changes to the west. The Goths would leave Rome and eventually find a permanent home in Gaul. Shortly after leaving the city, Alaric would die of illness - his gravesite is unknown - leaving his brother to lead the Goths. Leadership of the west would also change: Honorius would die in 423 CE while the usurper Constantine III would be defeated by Constantinus. Athaulf would not lead the Goths very long. After marrying Galla Placidia, he would die (possibly murdered) in 415 CE. Galla would return to her brother's forgiving arms. She would be forced to marry Constantinus. Their son would be Valentinian III (425-455 CE), the future emperor in the west. She would serve as her son's regent. In 476 CE the barbarian Odoacer and his army would ride into Italy and depose the young emperor Romulus Augustus. Oddly, the conqueror would not assume the title of emperor. Although arbitrary, the year 476 CE is recognized by most historians to indicate the fall of the west, but the sack of the city in 410 CE had brought the city to its knees, and it never recovered. The Byzantine Empire in the east would, however, survive until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.


Alaric’s Sack of Rome AD 410


Alaric I was the Christian King of the Visigoths from AD 395 until his death in 410. He emerged on the scene as leader of a motley band of Goths who invaded Thrace in AD 391 but was halted by the half-Vandal Roman general Stilicho. Alaric then joined the Roman army, serving under the Gothic general Gainas. In AD 394, he led a 20,000-strong Gothic army which helped Theodosius subdue the usurper Flavius Eugenius at the Battle of Frigidus. Alaric’s was something of a Pyrrhic victory he lost a quarter of his troops. To add insult to injury, Theodosius was distinctly unimpressed with Alaric’s contribution to his war effort, so Alaric left the army and was elected reiks (tribal leader or king) of the Visigoths in AD 395. That same year, Theodosius died of heart failure the empire was divided between his two sons: Flavius Arcadius in the east and Flavius Honorius in the west. Arcadius showed no interest in empire building, while Honorius was still a minor – Theodosius had appointed Flavius Stilicho magister equitum and guardian of Honorius. Honorius cemented the bond by marrying Stilicho’s daughter, Maria. A disappointed and angry Alaric was passed over in his hoped-for permanent command of a Roman army. Alaric was one of those educated and clever Goths who became career Romans, excelling in the Roman military hierarchy, taking sides when necessary, winning all or losing all. Alaric was different, though, because his aspirations to get close to Rome were that much higher than was typical for a barbarian.

Hoping to win his permanent Roman command, Alaric marched on Constantinople with an army which snowballed in size as he progressed, in much the same way as Fritigern’s had before him. But Constantinople was too daunting a challenge and the Romans blocked him anyway. He then moved on Greece, where he sacked the more vulnerable Piraeus and devastated Corinth, Megara, Argos and Sparta. Athens capitulated and was spared devastation. To prevent further death and destruction, Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum in Illyricum. Alaric had finally got the command he craved.

In AD 401, Alaric invaded Italy and laid siege to Milan, but he was later defeated by Stilicho, first at Pollentia (modern Pollenza) and then, accused of violating the treaty signed after Pollentia, at the Battle of Verona the following year. Amongst Stilicho’s prisoners were Alaric’s wife and children, and ten year’s worth of pillaged booty. Honorius moved the western capital from Rome to Ravenna, believing it to be more secure against attacks from the Goths.

Alaric, as it happened, was something of a Romanophile and, as we have seen, entertained hopes of getting closer to the city – militarily and politically. His military command helped him to achieve this. Invasion would assist him further. He even encouraged use of the Latinized name Alaricus. It was because of Alaric’s subsequent invasion that the capital city was transferred from Mediolanum (Milan) to Ravenna (it had been moved from Rome to Mediolanum in AD 286) Legio XX (Valeria Victrix) was recalled from Britannia. Alaric and Stilicho became allies of sorts.

Tensions between Roman west and east had risen sharply: Stilicho proposed using Alaric’s army to realize Honorius’ claim to the prefecture of Illyricum. Alaric, now in Noricum, threatened that he would only refrain from war with Rome if he was paid the extortionate sum of 4,000lb of gold in compensation. The Roman Senate consented to pay, under pressure from Stilicho, who did not want to add to his list of belligerent enemies. There was trouble in Gaul with Constantine, who had crossed the Channel from Britannia, and with the Vandals, Sueves and Alans who had crossed the Rhine and invaded.

In AD 408, Arcadius died after a short illness. Stilicho and Honorius squabbled over who should travel east to settle the succession of the Eastern Empire. There were rumours abroad that Stilicho wanted to place his son, Eucherius, on the eastern throne. When his first wife Maria died, Stilicho insisted that the emperor marry his younger daughter, Thermantia. But Honorius had had enough. Soon after, Olympius, his stooge, provoked a mutiny of the army during which most of Stilicho’s people were killed Olympius persuaded Honorius that Stilicho was an enemy of the state and was appointed magister officium. Stilicho took refuge in a church in Ravenna but, faithful to Honorius to the end, was arrested and executed his son was also slain. Honorius inflamed the Roman people to massacre tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman army. Unsurprisingly, this atrocity led to around 30,000 Gothic soldiers defecting to Alaric, joining him on his march on Rome over the Julian Alps to avenge their murdered families. Honorius had rejected Alaric’s demand for a sum of gold and an exchange of prisoners. En route, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and laid waste to the lands along the Adriatic. In September AD 408, Alaric was menancingly encamped ouside the walls of Rome whence he began his siege of the city and blockaded the Tiber. The hunt was on for scapegoats and one of the victims was Stilicho’s widow, Serena, strangled in an act of post-mortem justice.

Alaric’s greatest ally was starvation. It was not long before the Senate capitulated, agreeing in exchange for food to send an envoy to Honorius in Ravenna to urge peace. Alaric agreed, but not before the Senate’s failed attempt to unsettle Alaric their flaccid threats were met with derision and a loud guffaw when the Goth retorted: ‘The thicker the hay, the easier it’s cut down!’ The Romans eventually agreed a huge ransom of 5,000lb of gold, 30,000lb of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, 3,000 pounds of pepper and 40,000 Gothic slaves. According to Gibbon, ‘the Senate presumed to ask, in modest and suppliant tone, “If such, O king! are your demands, what do you intend to leave us?” “Your lives,” replied the haughty conqueror.’ Prodigious as it may seem, the ransom was probably not beyond the deep pockets of some of Rome’s more affluent senators. They made little contribution – the bill was paid by the official ransacking of pagan temples.

As we have seen, Alaric had hopes of insinuating himself into the Roman political machine and winning land within the Roman borders. The Senate sent envoys, including Pope Innocent I, to Ravenna to encourage the emperor to make a deal with the Goths. Alaric was much more conciliatory this time and went to Ariminum, where he discussed terms with Honorius’ diplomats. He demanded, quite reasonably, the provinces of Rhaetia and Noricum as a homeland for the Visigoths – a strip of territory 200 miles long and 150 miles wide between the Danube and the Gulf of Venice. He also demanded grain and – prize of them all – the rank of magisterium utriusque militae, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army, just as Stilicho had been. Jovius, leader of the imperial delegation, agreed, but predictably, Honorius refused to see the longterm picture and declined. He did not want another barbarian in the imperial hierarchy, and he subsequently tried to infiltrate a unit of Illyrian soldiers into Rome. The army was intercepted by Alaric and, infuriated by these insults, he just as predictably reacted by besieging Rome a second time, this time destroying the Roman granaries at Portus for good measure. Starvation loomed again: the high price of relief this time was permission from the Senate for Alaric to install a rival emperor to Honorius – the Greek Priscus Attalus, prefect of the city (praefectus urbi), something of a star in Rome. Alaric took Galla Placidia, Honorius’ sister, prisoner. Usurpers were always a sure way to concentrate the mind of an emperor.

Alaric had Attalus make him magister utriusque militium, and his brother-in-law Ataulf, who had arrived with reinforcements, was given the rank of comes domesticorum equitum. They then marched on Ravenna to overthrow Honorius and place Attalus on the imperial throne.

Victory was in Alaric’s grasp: Honorius was on the point of surrender when an army from the Eastern Empire arrived to defend Ravenna. Heraclian, who was governor of Africa, turned off Rome’s grain supply, threatening the city with more famine. Jerome rumoured cannibalism within the walls. Alaric wanted to send a modest Gothic force of 500 men to invade Africa and secure food for Rome, but perversely Attalus vetoed this, fearing that the Goths would seize Africa for themselves. Attalus marched on Ravenna with Alaric and succeeded in getting Honorius to propose some form of power-sharing arrangement – a clear indication of the legitimate emperor’s feebleness. Attalus stubbornly insisted that Honorius be deposed and go into exile on an island. This was not in Alaric’s script, so he had the reactionary and ineffective Attalus deposed and reopened negotiations with Honorius.

This time he was confounded by the inconvenient emergence on the scene of the malevolent Gothic general Sarus. He was of the Amalis, a clan which harboured eternal hostility against Alaric’s people. His intervention at this critical juncture may be explained by the possibility that he now felt threatened by Alaric. Sensing duplicity on the part of Honorius, an outraged Alaric thundered south with his army and stormed through the Porta Salaria to threaten the very existence of the city. Some say that Alaric bribed elderly senators inside with the promise of Goth slave boys if they opened the gates to him. In any event, Rome was taken. Jerome lamented: ‘My voice sticks in my throat, and, as I dictate, sobs choke me. The City which had taken the whole world has itself been taken.’ Alaric, a Christian, was busy desecrating a Christian city with his Christian Goths.

It seems that the storming of Rome in AD 410 was not nearly as catastrophic and horrendous as it might have been. Indeed, it goes down as one of the most benign and least destructive of pivotal sackings in history. There are stories of clemency, churches (for example, the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul) being saved the sparing of those seeking sanctuary therein, even to the extent of escorting holy women there to safety, for example one Marcella, before systematically looting their homes pots of gold and silver and other liturgical vessels remaining untouched because they ‘belonged to St Peter’ and a matrona appealing successfully to the better nature of a Goth who was on the point of raping her. One nun was given help returning gold and silver, God’s gold and silver, to her church she had concealed it from the looters. Nevertheless, it was still a disaster of the first order, with three days of unrelenting looting and rapine. Casualties included the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian, where the ashes of many Roman emperors and their families and friends were scattered to the four winds. The Goths also removed a huge silver ciborium weighing 2,025lb, a gift from the Emperor Constantine, from the Lateran Palace. Most of the vandalism occurred around the Salarian Gate, where the old senate house and Gardens of Sallust were wrecked along with the Basilicas Aemilia and Julia.

The taking of movables apart, most of Rome’s magnificent buildings escaped unscathed, in direct contrast to the Gaulish sack of Rome in 390 BC, where only the Capitol survived. So why is it that Alaric’s assault was seemingly so half-hearted and fails to live up to the stereotype we have of Goths running rampage in an orgy of unremitting rape and pillage? We have already noted that Alaric was anxious to ingratiate himself with Rome and win some sort of military and political standing there. Alaric was a civilized man he acted with restraint and patience time and time again when confounded by events over which he had little control, by a stubborn Honorius and implacable Stilicho. He was astute enough to opt for short-term compromise in his long-term mission to settle the Goths. Alaric sacked Rome reluctantly because he had to satisfy, to some extent at least, the appetite and expectation of his army for booty, but more as a signal to Honorius, hoping that the emperor would install and accommodate him in some capacity or other. He used his assault on the city as a gambling counter, in the belief that Honorius would be persuaded to bring him into his circle by the threat that was posed to his city. Alaric, however, misread the situation completely: Rome was no longer Honorius’ city – Ravenna was. To a pragmatic Honorius, Rome was political history, no longer the powerful hub it had been for centuries. So Alaric got nowhere and Rome was more or less saved from destruction. Alaric had failed: he might possess Rome but he was no nearer winning for himself the inside position within the Roman establishment. He had no permanent imperial command and now he would be excluded from the imperial court forever. Just as importantly, the Goths were still a displaced people with nowhere to go and nowhere to call home. It was not until AD 417 that the Visigoths were able to found an autonomous kingdom of their own within the boundaries of the Western Empire. Alaric’s fervid ambition to find for the Goths a permanent, sustainable homeland was finally realized.

After Rome, Alaric headed into Calabria with designs on invading Africa, the bread-basket of Rome, and of Italy. His plans were thrown into confusion by a storm which smashed his fleet many of his troops drowned. Alaric himself died soon after in Cosenza. According to Jordanes, his body and some precious spoils were buried under the river bed of the Busento in accordance with the funerary practices of the Visigoths. The stream was temporarily dammed while his grave was dug the river was then restored to its natural course. The prisoners who did the work were put to death so that the location of the king’s final resting place remained as much a secret as possible. Alaric’s brother-in-law Ataulf succeeded him he married Honorius’ sister Galla Placidia three years later.

Rome soon responded there was the same old grain shortages within two years of the sacking and the returning Gallic nobleman Rutilius Namatianus seeing what he described as an ordo renascendi – a brave new world. Two years after the death of Alaric, Ataulf led the Visigoths into south-western Gaul, where, in AD 418, Honorius was forced to recognize their kingdom at Toulouse. In AD 423, Honorius died and was succeeded by Valentinian III, though still a child at the time. The Vandals invaded North Africa, defeated the Romans and, in AD 439, took Carthage, which Genseric, their leader, made his capital. In AD 451, Attila and the Huns, already so powerful that they were paid an annual tribute by Rome, invaded Gaul with the Vandals. They were defeated at the Battle of Châlons by the Visigoths under Flavius Aetius, military commander of the West. In AD 455, on the death of Valentinian III, the Vandals walked into an undefended Rome, which they plundered at liberty for two weeks. If Alaric’s sack was restrained, this was even more so, despite the length of time spent plundering. The Vandals did, though, make off with treasures from the Temple of Peace and lifted the gilded bronze tiles from the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This outrage gives us the word ‘vandalism’. They took Licinia Eudoxia (AD 422–462) and her daughters hostage she was the Roman empress daughter of Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Her husbands included the Western Emperors Valentinian III and Petronius Maximus.

Rome had held sway in the Mediterranean region for 600 years or so. The city had remained unmolested for 800 years. Alaric’s sacking exposed the Western Roman Empire’s increasing vulnerability and military fragility. The political and cultural shock waves must have been overwhelming to all those who viewed Rome as the Eternal City. Rome was home to the richest senatorial noble families and the centre of their civilized, cultured world to pagans it was the sacred origin of the empire, and to Christians the seat of the heir of Saint Peter, Pope Innocent I, the leading bishop of the West. Jerome summed it up for many when he asked, ‘If Rome can perish, what can be safe?’ To many Romans, the destruction of their city was seen as divine retribution for rejecting the traditional pagan gods for Christianity. This provided the impetus for Saint Augustine to write The City of God, questioning the role of the pagan gods as history-makers. Non-Christians clung to the belief that Rome had succumbed because the old gods had withdrawn their protection. But Augustine was far from convinced. Where were the gods when the Romans could not break the siege of Veii? Where were the gods when the Gauls sacked Rome under Brennus? These were just two of the leading questions he asked. Orosius too, in his History Against the Pagans, proved that Rome suffered many disasters before the coming of Christ. On a more mundane level, Stilicho’s military failings were also blamed. Perhaps Alaric’s greatest legacy was that he, through the disaster he visited on the city of Rome and on the Romans, was the man who made it possible for the Goths to make history, whereas before they were mere participants in other people’s histories.


The Sack of Rome, 410

David Jones describes how romanized Gothic and Vandal leaders overran the capital of a declining Empire in the fifth century.

The sack of Rome by Alaric and his Gothic army sent a shock of horror through the ancient world. Twice in the past two years the Goths had camped at the gates of the city but on August 24th, 410, the unthinkable, the impossible, happened. In Gibbon’s words, ‘Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia’.

The city was easily captured and its occupation was of no strategic significance. The Goths had been granted land in northern Greece and Bulgaria thirty years earlier by the Emperor Theodosius: Alaric himself had spent most of his life within the frontiers of the Roman Empire. He was no savage barbarian chief, but had held high command in the imperial forces.

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Looting and pillaging

I went to look for evidence at the northern walls of Rome, still almost intact for long stretches after nearly two millennia.

There is a gap marking the site of the former Salarian Gate just across the road from a modern department store. Alaric's army took the Via Salaria - the so-called salt road - linking the city to the Adriatic Sea.

When the city gates were opened by slaves, Alaric's ragtag army rushed inside to loot and pillage. The sack lasted for only three days, after which Alaric withdrew and marched south to set sail for North Africa, an important and wealthy Roman province.

But Alaric never made it. His ships were destroyed in a storm and he died shortly afterwards.

Many Romans fled to North Africa for safety. There, in Hippo, an important coastal town in what is now Algeria, the local bishop, Saint Augustine, was inspired to write one of his seminal works, The City of God.

Augustine, just like Jerome, felt he had lost his bearings with news of the collapse of Rome. Once Rome had gone, what sense was to be made of the world?


Sack of Rome 410 CE - History

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  • Ammianus Marcellinus (330-395 CE): The Battle of Adrianopole, 378 CE [At this Site]
  • Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330-395 CE): History, XIV.16: The Luxury of the Rich in Rome, c. 400 CE [At this Site]
  • Procopius of Caesarea (c.500-after 562 CE): Alaric's Sack of Rome, 410 CE, History of the Wars [written c. 550 CE], III.ii.7-39 [At this Site]
  • Procopius of Caesarea (c.500-after 562 CE): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, 406 - 477 CE, History of the Wars [written c. 550 CE], Book III, chapters iii-vii [At this Site]
  • Rutilius Numantius: On His Return, I.xi.47, The Greatness of Rome in the Days of Ruin, 413CE [At this Site]
  • Jordanes (fl.c.550 CE): History of the Goths Chap. 38: The Battle of Chalôns, 451 CE [At this Site]
    The Defeat of Attila.
  • 2ND Edward Gibbon: On the Fall of the Roman Empire [At this Site][added 7/2/98 to Rome page]
  • 2ND Bruce Bartlett: How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome, Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994 [At Cato.org]
    An example of ancient history being seen through distinctly modern eyes! [Be wary of all such "explanations" which do not consider the survival of the Eastern Empire.]
  • Roman Stoicism
    • 2ND Eclecticism, Cicero. Epictetus [IEP Articles]
    • Cicero (98-c.55 BCE): The Dream of Scipio [At WSU] and in Latin [At IPA]
    • Seneca (c.4 BCE-65 CE): On Tranquillity of Mind 9:4ff and in Latin [At Upenn]
    • Tacitus (b.56/57-after 117 CE): The Death of Seneca, 65 CE (Annals 15:64) [This Site]
    • Epictetus (50-c.120 CE): Enchiridion, c.135CE [At MIT]
    • Epictetus (50-c.120 CE): The Discourses [At Then Again]
    • Marcus Aurelius Antonius (b.121-r.161-d.180 CE): Meditations, 167 CE [At this Site][One HTML file]
    • Marcus Aurelius (b.121-r.161-d.180 CE): Meditations [At EAWC][Full Text][Chapter files]
    • Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE): Meditations excerpts. [At MIT]
    • 2ND George Long: Philosophy Of Antoninus [At this Site]
      A discussion of Stoic philosophy and Marcus Aurelius.
    • WEB Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Emanation [IEP Articles]
    • Plotinus (c.205-c.270 CE): Six Enneads [At MIT][Full Text][Chapter files]
    • Plotinus (c.205-c.270 CE): Six Enneads [At this Site, formerly ERIS][Full Text][Ascii Text in one file]
    • Plotinus (c.205-c.270 CE): On Beauty Ennead I:6.1 [At EWAC]
    • Porphyry (232/3-c.305 C.E.): On Cult Images [At MIT]
      Drawn from fragments in Eusebius (c.260-340 CE).
    • Porphyry (232/3-c.305 CE): On Images [At MIT][Full Text]
    • Iamblichus (c.250-c.325 CE): On the Arts and Effects of Ecstasy, On the Mysteries III, 4-6 [At enteract.com]
    • The Emperor Julian: Mispogon (or "Beard-Hater")[At this Site]
    • Julian ("the Apostate") (b.332-r.361-d.363): Letter to Arsacius, c. 360 [At Then Again]
    • Symmachus (c.340-c.402): Relation 3, 384 CE [At Calgary]
      Symmachus was the most prominent opponent of Christianity at his time. Here is his request to the Christian Emperors to restore the altar of victory to the Senate.
    • Ambrose of Milan (c.339-4 April 397): Response to Symmachus [ep. 17 and 18] [at Calgary]
    • Zosimus: Historia Nova [At Then Again]
      Theodosius II (r.375-95) bans the pagan rites and sacrifices.
    • 2ND James O'Donnell: The Demise of Paganism, Traditio 35 (1977):45-88 [At UPenn]

    Dates of accession of material added since July 1998 can be seen in the New Additions page.. The date of inception was 4/8/1998.

    Links to files at other site are indicated by [At some indication of the site name or location]. Locally available texts are marked by [At this Site].

    WEB indicates a link to one of small number of high quality web sites which provide either more texts or an especially valuable overview.

    The Internet Ancient History Sourcebook is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project

    The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University. Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

    © Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021 [Curriculum vitae]


    The growing power of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V alarmed Pope Clement VII, who perceived Charles as attempting to dominate the Catholic Church and Italy. The army of the Holy Roman Emperor defeated the French army in Italy, but funds were not available to pay the soldiers.

    Alaric died of illness at Consentia in late 410, mere months after the sack. According to legend, he was buried with his treasure by slaves in the bed of the Busento river. The slaves were then killed to hide its location. The Visigoths elected Ataulf, Alaric’s brother-in-law, as their new king.


    But it turns out the Vandals, a Germanic tribe that managed to take over Rome in 455, may not deserve that connotation. The first known written reference to the tribe was in A.D. 77, when Pliny the Elder mentioned “Vandilii.” However, the Vandals ‘ roots are uncertain, and their early history is contested.

    After sacking Rome, the Goths had vacillated between fighting against and then for the imperial authorities, and after carving a swathe through the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves in Spain, were granted a settlement in southwestern Gaul.


    The Visigoths were one of the groups crossing Roman borders and marching down their roads to sack their cities, while the Vikings were the sea farers were who weren’t keen to share their Brittons with the Romans – to Rome England was the scary end of the world and the Vikings were on the other side.

    There are no Visigoths left anywhere we all have a micropiece of Visigoths in us, no one enough to be called that. There are no Visigoths they were completely absorbed by the Spanish people. They were not that many either, they were some 80.000 against 2.5-3 million Roman Spaniards.


    The Sack of Rome in 410 AD: The Event, Its Context and Its Impact. Palilia, Bd 28

    This handsome volume of papers by many of the leading scholars of Late Antique Rome is based on a conference sponsored by the German Archaeological Institute in Rome in 2010 to mark the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Alaric’s Visigoths. The goal of the conference was to reexamine the evidence for what actually happened in those fateful three days in August 410 and, more importantly, what impact those events had on the development of the city in the fifth century. While the editors disavow any claim to present a comprehensive inventory of the evidence or a definitive assessment of the events of 410, in fact the collected papers make substantial progress on both counts. The result is a volume that is essential reading not just for scholars interested in 410, but for anyone engaged in research on a wide variety of topics in the history, topography, and archaeology of Rome in the fifth century CE.

    The volume begins with an introductory section (3 essays) in which methodological concerns are front and center. Philipp von Rummel emphasizes the need to allow archaeology to proceed independently of literary sources and divides the possible archaeological evidence into three types: direct evidence (e.g. a destruction layer), indirect evidence (e.g. restoration inscriptions), and medium-term changes that may point to social consequences of the sack (e.g. changes in topography) (20). In practice, however, as the subsequent essays make clear, each of these types is less than conclusive. It is usually impossible to determine what caused a fire, and fires happened routinely in Rome for all sorts of reasons. Likewise, the restoration inscriptions that date to the years after 410 are often considered as offering evidence of damage suffered in the sack, but as Silvia Orlandi points out, this becomes a circular argument: instead of furnishing information about the sack, the sack ends up being used to interpret the inscriptions (343), many of which are frustratingly vague about the reason for the damage being repaired. Lastly, it is not easy to determine whether changes in the topography of an area should be attributed to a specific, external catalyst or to gradual, organic processes (as Franz Alto Bauer prefers). Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani notes the tendency in older scholarship for the sack of 410 to be singled out much more frequently than those of 455 or 472 because of the fame of the literary sources that mention it (37). For him, in contrast, the relative lack of physical evidence for 410 suggests that however badly Rome was damaged (which is essentially impossible to discover), it quickly recovered from the sack as the population returned and rebuilt, much of the evidence of the destruction was necessarily removed and thereby rendered invisible to archaeologists (38). Along similar lines, Bauer argues that the damage caused by the Goths consisted primarily in the looting of valuable objects in gold and silver, not in the destruction of physical structures, which explains why it is difficult to find archaeological evidence of the sack (266).

    The rest of the volume is divided into three sections: a short one on context (three essays), followed by much longer ones on the event (12 essays) and its repercussions (11 essays). The longest essay in the context section is Carlos Machado’s attempt to situate the sack of 410 within a broader prosopographical study of the composition of the Roman aristocracy and its relations with the imperial court between 380 and 440. By looking one generation before and after the event, Machado seeks to measure the impact of the events of 408-10 on both groups. He finds that Rome’s aristocracy was more socially and politically “open” (51) in the late fourth century than it was after the sack, when the most important offices were more closely monopolized by the highest-ranking families and aristocrats tended to be more Italy-centric in their backgrounds and career patterns. Michael Kulikowski’s paper includes an innovative reading of Alaric in the light of postcolonial theory he suggests that Alaric mimicked the normative career path of an ambitious Roman general but could not overcome his subaltern, barbarian origin (80-1). This image of Alaric as a liminal figure is not shared by other contributors – Ralph Mathisen asserts that he would have been viewed by contemporaries as a Roman general in revolt (94), while Peter Heather emphasizes his non-Roman origins and demands (433-37) – but it may help to explain why some ancient sources (e.g. Zosimus, Orosius) appear to be relatively favorable toward him.

    The longest section in the volume surveys the physical evidence for the sack in a number of different locations in the city. The dominant finding that emerges from these papers is that traces of the sack are difficult to detect archaeologically even at sites where destruction has been detected, there is little to tie it specifically to the Goths. Still, as von Rummel aptly observes in his introductory essay, this conclusion is only disappointing if one is expecting the opposite (26). Although connections with the sack of 410 are difficult to establish, the papers in this section are far from disappointing on the contrary, they provide useful, up-to-date surveys of some of the most important archaeological work conducted on late-antique Rome over the last couple of decades. Deserving of special mention here is the paper by Johannes Lipps concerning the Basilica Aemilia, precisely because this building—with its coins melted into the floor—has long been assumed to exhibit clear evidence of the Visigothic sack. Even here, however, the gun is revealed to be less smoking than sfumato. While the roof did indeed burn in the early fifth century, there is no way to determine the cause, though the presence of coins strewn across the floor might suggest that the fire was the result of an unexpected accident (103). In addition, the old assumption that the sack prompted a rebuilding of the portico in front of the Basilica depends on a single restoration inscription, which, as it was found in the Forum of Caesar, may not belong to the portico at all, especially since the evidence of the brickstamps points instead to a rebuilding of the portico in the early fourth century, not the early fifth (111).

    Across the river, the main threats to the inhabitants of Trastevere seem to have been floods and earthquakes rather than Goths, and the physical evidence presented by Fedora Filippi points toward continuity of settlement (148). While the density of settlement declined in the fifth century, the truly dramatic changes, such as the appearance of burials in formerly residential areas, do not occur until the sixth and seventh centuries (158). Similarly, Axel Gering argues for the continued vitality of the Forum at Ostia up until the time of the Vandal sack of 455 (226). Carlo Pavolini’s paper summarizes the results of recent excavations on the Caelian hill. He sees evidence that a number of different buildings were abandoned in the course of the fifth century and suggests that the Visigothic sack, by damaging the aristocratic establishment in this quarter, may have been the trigger for wider changes that trickled down the socio-economic ladder (179). The picture of the Aventine traced by Paola Quaranta, Roberta Pardi, Barbara Ciarrocchi and Alessandra Capodiferro is mixed. Although one of the four sites discussed shows clear evidence of a destructive event in the early fifth century, the buildings along the via Marmorata attest continuity of use up until the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century (196).

    Franz Alto Bauer and Paolo Liverani contribute papers in which topographical changes are considered through the lens of church construction. Concerning the titulus Pammachii, Bauer contends that the underlying domus was bought by Pammachius (whom he identifies with the senatorial correspondent of Jerome) as a site for the church and that the church must have been built before 410. This would then be an example of gradual transformation of the urban landscape, rather than a sudden rupture caused by the Visigoths (265). Liverani allows for a greater but still indirect role for 410 in relation to the foundation of S. Maria Maggiore here too the church was built on top of earlier houses, which may represent property that had become abandoned after 410 (284).

    The third and final section of the volume is devoted to the wider impact of the sack. Michele Salzman’s paper on the pagan response to 410 challenges the thesis of Alan Cameron’s Last Pagans of Rome (2011). In contrast to Cameron, who argues that paganism was defunct as a religious and intellectual system by 400, Salzman argues that “we can discern a particular set of identifiable ‘pagan’ emotions and attitudes in response to the fall of Rome, the memory of which was part of an ongoing dialogue over the nature of divine power and religious tradition in relation to the Roman state” (296). The fact that Christian leaders as late as the middle of the fifth century still felt the need to combat the pagan critique suggests to Salzman that it continued to resonate with elements of their audience. The papers of Mischa Meier and Neil McLynn seek to revise and upgrade our estimation of Orosius. Both scholars suggest that the contemporary situation in Spain, where the Goths were now fighting on the Roman side against the Vandals and Sueves, exerted a larger influence on Orosius’ narrative than the sack of 410. This optimistic outlook is shared by Christine Delaplace, who argues that the Empire retained the upper hand over the Visigoths in the years after 410. Their settlement in Aquitaine was thus very much in the Roman military tradition of receptio, and did not entail any recognition of an independent Gothic kingdom (428-30).

    Returning to Rome, two excellent papers argue that the arrival of the Goths had discernible consequences on the ground. First, Bryan Ward-Perkins and Carlos Machado, drawing on the results of their “Last Statues of Antiquity” project, conclude that the years from approximately 407-17 are marked by a noticeable interruption in the dedication of statues in the city. The sack “did not kill the statue habit in Rome, though it dented it” (354), but in the rest of Italy, it definitively pricked “the bubble of civic self-confidence” and “killed off the practice of erecting honorific statuary” (356). While most contributors focus on the sack of 410, Roberto Meneghini’s paper considers the effects of Alaric’s first siege of Rome in 408. In particular, the discovery of a necropolis beneath the piazza on the north side of the Colosseum reveals the degree to which the siege disrupted basic civic norms. The decision to leave these burials in place once the danger receded marks a “decisive step” toward the definitive entry of burials inside the city (407). In contrast, the papers by Elio Lo Cascio and Clementina Panella conclude that 410 did not result in profound changes in the structure and scale of the city’s population or imports both authors instead identify the second half of the fifth/early sixth century as the period that saw the greatest reduction.

    Concluding the volume are a pair of papers by Peter Heather and Walter Pohl. Heather’s well-argued paper summarizes his own views and responds to various criticisms, most prominently, those of Kulikowski, so clearly that it could be usefully assigned to undergraduates. (In brief, Heather believes that the barbarian invasions were mass migrations of people, that the military pressure exerted by these groups severely disrupted the functioning of Roman government, and that the fall of the western Empire had immense political, economic, and cultural consequences Kulikowski believes that the invasions were incursions of fairly small raiding parties, that the sack of Rome in 410 was the result of a tangle of contingent factors and personal decisions, and that the fall of the western Empire was the result of political failures in the Roman system.) Pohl’s essay is more reflective he defends “transformation” as an appropriate and productive umbrella under which a broader range of research questions can find shelter than are usually considered by the “decline and fall” school. Echoing the findings of the archaeological papers in the volume, Pohl concludes that 410 was “no real caesura in the history” of the city (452), but does provide “a focus for the underlying changes in the course of the long transformation of the Roman world” (453).

    In the end, it is not without irony that a conference convened to mark the anniversary of the sack finds little archaeological evidence of it. Nevertheless, this volume successfully exploits the opportunity provided by the anniversary of a famous event to produce a much more complex, nuanced, and thoughtful investigation of its significance. One wonders if a similar conference will be convened in 2055 to consider the impact of the Vandal sack of 455. Such an effort would lack the impetus provided by famous literary sources, but it would also proceed with fewer preconceptions and benefit from additional insights gained by further archaeological research over the coming decades.


    The Sack of Rome in 1527

    Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert, after Martin van Heemskerck, Sack of Rome in 1527 (and the Death of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon), engraving and etching on paper, in Divi Caroli (The Victories of Emperor Charles V), 1555/6, published by Hieronymus Cock (© Trustees of the British Museum). Charles III falls to his death as his Spanish and German (largely Lutheran) troops attack the Borgo (a neighborhood in Rome). Pope Clement VI is imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo, which is on fire in the background. Heemskerck’s image was made almost 30 years after the sack, when Charles V abdicated and was soon to die.

    When night fell and the enemy entered Rome, we in the Castello, and most particularly myself, who has always delighted in seeing new things, stood there contemplating this unbelievable spectacle and conflagration, which was of a magnitude that those who were situated in any other spot but the Castello would neither see or imagine. Benvenuto Cellini, in his autobiography, My Life (composed between 1558 and 1566) [1]

    Forces under the banner of Charles V sack Rome

    On May 6, 1527, the unthinkable occurred. An army of more than 20,000 soldiers invaded Rome—the Eternal City—and violently looted and pillaged it for over a month. During this time, German and Spanish soldiers under the banner of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Holy Roman Empire plundered churches and palaces, held cardinals and merchants for ransom, and killed men and women from all walks of life in the streets and in their homes. Rome had not suffered such a humiliating and catastrophic defeat by a foreign army since the sack of the city in 410 C.E. at the hands of the Visigoths.

    For contemporaries, the sack was an “unbelievable spectacle and conflagration”—to use the words of the Florentine goldsmith and artist, Benvenuto Cellini—that left Rome ruined and its population dispersed. For an entire year, civic and cultural life in the city stopped in its tracks. It would take years for Rome to recover.

    Map of the Italian peninsula at the beginning of the Italian Wars (1494–1559)

    It’s important to keep in mind that at that time, Italy was not unified as a nation-state. Rather it was a collection of city-states dominated by the Papal States (the lands of the papacy), the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Florence, the Duchy of Milan, and the Kingdom of Naples.

    Modern scholars see the Sack of Rome as an important turning point in the history of Rome and the papacy . Many have interpreted the event as ending the golden age of the High Renaissance, embodied by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, and hastening the onset of the Counter Reformation and its emphasis on piety and morality.

    Regardless, the Sack of 1527 was a traumatic event that displaced artisans, artists, and humanists of the papal court and city and imprinted a painful memory on the generation that experienced it.

    Part of the Italian Wars

    The Sack of Rome occurred amid the Italian Wars which saw French, Spanish and Imperial armies (the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V) fight for dominance over the cities and states of the Italian peninsula. Once independent city-states and kingdoms, most of the Italian powers, such as the Republic of Florence , the Duchy of Milan , and the Kingdom of Naples , had come under the control and influence of Charles V.

    Resentful of Charles’s power in the peninsula, Pope Clement VII organized the League of Cognac in 1526 with France, Venice, Milan, and Florence to counter-balance the influence of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Italy. This alliance between the papacy, France, and many Italian city-states opened a new phase of the Italian Wars called the War of the League of Cognac (1526–30).

    Charles V’s forces, numbering more than 20,000 Spaniards, Italians, and Germans quickly asserted itself in northern Italy, delivering several losses to the forces of the League of Cognac near Milan. However, the army was poorly equipped and even lacked the heavy artillery necessary to besiege walled cities.

    The landsknechts were German mercenaries who fought in the Imperial armies during the first half of the sixteenth century. They were famed for their ferocity and skill with pikes. The landsknechts were known for their outlandish attire, which inspired fear on the battlefield. Daniel Hopfer, Landsknechte, c. 1530, etching, 20.2 × 37.7 cm (The Art Institute of Chicago)

    To make matters worse, the soldiers had not been paid for months and had taken to living off the land to survive. Consequently, they mutinied and forced their general, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, to march on Rome. Many of the Germans soldiers—mercenaries soldiers called landsknechts—were Protestants who eagerly looked forward to attacking papal Rome as a religious calling and to pillaging the famed wealth of the popes.

    The assault

    In the early morning of May 6, 1527, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon and his forces began their assault on Rome. Despite Rome’s massive walls (built in the third century C.E. by the Roman emperor Aurelian), the Imperial army found the city ill-prepared for the attack. Besides a contingent of Swiss guards , the city’s defenders could only muster 5,000 militiamen, composed of artisans, artists (like Cellini), and priests. In a bold move, the Duke of Bourbon personally led his men as they scaled the walls of Rome at the district of Trastevere. Wearing his characteristic white cloak, Bourbon was shot dead early in the attack by Cellini—if we are to believe his recounting of the sack.

    In this engraving of the sack, the siege of Castel Sant’Angelo is portrayed. The pope and two other prelates look upon the action from a balcony. Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert, after Martin van Heemskerck, Lansknechte in Front of Castel’Angelo in 1527, copper engraving in (The Victories of Emperor Charles V), 1555/6, published by Hieronymus Cock, 15.6 × 23.2 cm (Rijksmuseum)

    Despite the loss of their general, the imperial forces breached the wall and swarmed into Rome, finding to their disbelief that none of the bridges connecting Trastevere to Rome had been destroyed. Quickly, the motley collection of Spaniards and Germans marched over Ponte Sisto, through the Banchi , and across Ponte Sant’Angelo to the Vatican, “killing everyone in their path.” [2]

    Cardinals, prelates, and citizens all stumbled over one another in their mad rush to flee the massacre. Much of the court hid inside Castel Sant’Angelo ( the ancient mausoleum of the Roman emperor, Hadrian, which had been converted into a fortress and a prison in the fourteenth century) , the tall fortress on the Tiber that protected the entrance to the district around the Vatican.

    Pope Clement VII, who had been praying in his private chapel, had to be rushed by cardinals and servants to the fortress through a secret pathway. Witnesses later recounted the pope’s narrow escape. According to one account, if he “had tarried for three more creeds, he would have been taken prisoner in his own palace.” [3] For an entire month, the imperial forced besieged the fortress as more than a thousand courtiers and prelates survived on dwindling supplies. Finally, on June 6, Clement VII surrendered agreeing to pay a ransom of 400,000 ducats for his freedom.

    The ruin of the Eternal City

    “Hell was a more beautiful sight to behold.” Marin Sanuto [4]

    So wrote the Venetian chronicler, Marin Sanuto, in describing the destruction wrought by the imperial army on the city and people of Rome. Numerous other diaries, letters, and contemporary histories attest to the violence and looting that took place during the sack. According to these accounts, the soldiers pillaged churches and palaces, tortured merchants to discover where they kept their fortunes, ransomed cardinals and prelates for thousands of ducats, and murdered men and women indiscriminately.

    The engraving shows a German soldier dressed as the pope being paraded through the streets of Rome. In the background, fighting and pillaging ensues. In the distance, Castel Sant’Angelo and Ponte Sant’Angelo can be seen. Mattäus Merian, “Sack of Rome,” engraving in Johann Ludwig Gottfried’s Historiche Chronica (Frankfurt 1630–34), p. 33.

    Much of this violence took on an anti-clerical and anti-Catholic tone with the Lutheran landsknechts stripping churches of all their valuables and mocking the relics found in their treasuries. Contemporaries described how the relics of Saints Peter and Paul were trampled underfoot, the Sudarium of Christ was sold in taverns, and a priest was killed for not administering the sacraments to a mule dressed in ecclesiastical vestments. One group even elected Martin Luther as pope and carried one of their own in his stead, dressed as the pope in ritual derision of the pope and the papacy—a moment visualized in a seventeenth-century engraving by Mattäus Merian.

    The aftermath of the Sack

    Clement VII and his court, despite surrendering, were held prisoners in Castel Sant’Angelo until he paid the 400,000-ducat ransom. The pope paid a few of these installments before escaping on December 7, 1527 to Orvieto, a nearby city on the border between the Papal States and Tuscany. Here, Clement held court until October 7, 1528, when it was deemed safe to return to Rome. He came back to a ruined city. The population of Rome, which before the sack numbered about 55,000 in habitants, had been reduced to a quarter of its previous size. Much of this population loss can be attributed to merchants, artists, and other temporary visitors fleeing the city. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, scholars estimate that at least ten percent of Rome’s population died in the sack and occupation of the city by the Imperial forces. It would take thirty years for Rome to reach its pre-Sack population.

    Giorgio Vasari, Pope Clement VII in Conversation with Charles V, c. 1560. This painting by the Florentine painter and art critic, Giorgio Vasari, depicts the pope and emperor in conversation as equals. Note that Clement VII was beardless before the sack. He grew the beard as a form of mourning on account of the sack and his time spent in “exile” at Orvieto. The papal court soon followed his example and started to grow beards, helping to further popularize an already growing fashion for keeping beards in the sixteenth century.

    Soon after the sack, Pope Clement VII and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, publicly reconciled when the emperor met the pope in Bologna, where the emperor was crowned by the pope in 1530. Although the traditional coronation ceremony long emphasized papal authority over the Empire, this time the ritual belied Charles V’s domination of Italian affairs. In the months of negotiation leading up to the coronation, Clement VII had to accept the emperor’s influence in secular and ecclesiastical affairs, most notably Charles’s leading position in the Italian peninsula and his call for a council to reform the church—what would later evolve into the Council of Trent . For the next two centuries, popes had to navigate between their own aspirations to power and the demands of secular leaders such as Charles V.

    The impact of the Sack of Rome on art

    The Sack of Rome also had a long-lasting impact on the cultural and artistic life of papal Rome. The sack displaced many artists and humanists working at the papal court. The art historian André Chastel has called this displacement of artists a “diaspora.” [5] A diaspora is a forced dispersal of a large group of people, often entire populations, from their homeland. The term originally applied to the forced displacement of Jews, especially after the Jewish-Roman Wars (66–73 C.E.). The term has since been applied to any large-scale displacement of people.

    Long an artistic center that attracted the likes of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, Rome was not the same after the sack. Many artists, finding it hard to secure patronage in Rome, moved to courts in France and the Holy Roman Empire. The painter, Rosso Fiorentino, who suffered at the hands of German soldiers during the sack, found employment at the royal court of King of France in order to escape “a certain kind of wretchedness and poverty.” [6] In transferring to these courts, artists helped disseminate the burgeoning Mannerist style beyond Rome and Florence.

    It has been suggested that the events of 1527 brought an abrupt end to the High Renaissance —although a rguments like this might be a little too strong since Clement’s successor, the popular Roman pope, Paul III , initiated a restoration of Rome’s glory through a program of reform, city-planning, and art patronage.

    The Sack of Rome in art

    A new spirit infused art commissioned by the popes and prelates of the church after the sack. This art was inspired by the reform movements within the church and emphasized piety and doctrine, erasing any of the “pagan” elements of the High Renaissance (most famously embodied by the painter Giulio Romano’s erotic images, I Modi). These trends were already in motion prior to the sack, but some scholars emphasize the role of the events of 1527 in hastening this change. Popes after Clement VII tended to commission works of art that glorified the Church, proclaimed papal supremacy, and educated the faithful in proper doctrine.

    Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert, after Martin van Heemskerck, Sack of Rome in 1527 (and the Death of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon), engraving and etching on paper, in Divi Caroli (The Victories of Emperor Charles V), 1555/6, published by Hieronymus Cock (© Trustees of the British Museum).

    In the years after 1527, humanists and chroniclers wrote about the Sack of Rome and its consequences. However, Italian artists did not produce any works that grappled with the sack itself in its immediate aftermath—perhaps the memory of the event was too painful for the generation that witnessed it to process it through art. One of first portrayals of the sack appeared in 1556 with a series of twelve engravings, The Victories of Charles V, based on the drawings of the Dutch painter, Martin van Heemskerck. The engravings, printed in the Netherlands, celebrated the emperor’s reign after his abdication of the Spanish throne in favor of his son, Philip II.

    Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert, after Martin van Heemskerck, Lansknechte in Front of Castel’Angelo in 1527, copper engraving in (The Victories of Emperor Charles V), 1555/6, published by Hieronymus Cock, 15.6 × 23.2 cm (Rijksmuseum)

    Although Charles V was personally embarrassed by the Sack of Rome, the publisher who commissioned the engravings, Hieronymus Cock, thought it worthy enough to include among the images of the emperor’s victories in the Italian Wars and in his battles against Protestants in Germany. The engravings proved popular and were printed seven times between 1556 and 1640, prolonging the memory of the Italian Wars and the Sack of Rome, and serving as inspiration for artistic depictions of these events.

    Workshop of Guido Durantino, also known as Guido Fontana, maiolica plate, An Episode from the Sack of Rome, 1527: The Assault on the Borgo (the district where the Vatican was located), c. 1540. The plate depicts the Duke of Bourbon leading the imperial forces to the walls of Rome. Castel Sant’Angelo and Ponte Sant’Angelo can be seen in the background.

    Meanwhile, one of the first Italian depictions of the sack oddly occurred in the most mundane of all places—a colorful maiolica plate produced by the workshop of Guido Durantino around 1540 in Urbino. The details of the plate’s commission are unknown, but its patron surely wanted the memory of sack to live on while entertaining dinner guests.

    [1] Benvenuto Cellini, My Life , trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 62.

    [2] Luigi Guicciardini, The Sack of Rome, trans. James H. McGregor (Italic Press, 1993), p. 96.

    [3] Judith Hook, The Sack of Rome, 1527 (Palgrave, 2004), p. 165.

    [4] Judith Hook, The Sack of Rome, 1527 (Palgrave, 2004), p. 167.

    [5] André Chastel, The Sack of Rome, 1527 , trans. Beth Archer, Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 3.

    [6] Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (Oxford, 1991), p. 353

    Additional resources:

    André Chastel, The Sack of Rome, 1527 (Princeton University, 1983)

    Jessica Goethals, “Vanquished Bodies, Weaponized Words: Pietro Aretino’s Conflicting Portraits of the Sexes and the Sack of Rome,” I Tatti: Studies in the Italian Renaissance 17 (2014): pp. 55–78

    Kenneth Gouwens, Remembering the Renaissance: Humanist Narratives of the Sack of Rome (Brill, 1998)

    Luigi Guicciardini, The Sack of Rome (Italica Press, 1993)

    Judith Hook, The Sack of Rome, 1527 (Palgrave, 2004)

    Bart Rosier, “The Victories of Charles V: A Series of Prints by Marteen van Heemskerck, 1555-1556,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 20 (1990–1991), pp. 24–38

    Idan Sherer, “A Bloody Carnival? Charles V’s Soldiers and the Sack of Rome,” Renaissance Studies 34 (2020): pp. 784–802


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Comments:

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