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Anniversary of Sack of Rome, and self-serving clichés about European history

24 August 410 CE is the date of the Sack of Rome, and its treatment as a milestone in our understanding of European history is a good example of how wide the gap is between reality, as scholars seek to understand it, and the storybook fables that many people come to believe and then try to spread tendentiously on to others.

The Writer's Almanac entry for the Sack of Rome says that Alaric and the Visigoths "were one of the many tribes who were suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire. Roman leaders enforced higher and higher taxes on the people in their outer provinces and corrupt local officials grew wealthy while the people stayed poor. Rebellions broke out and the Visigoths started moving toward Rome."

Alaric is often portrayed (in WASP-derived cultures) as a kind of precursor figure to Martin Luther or to Calvin, coming to reform the corruption and decadence of Rome and free people from their burdens. It's not just a false portrayal or an oversimplification - it's a fabulation that seeks to elevate our view of the seeds of the Holy Roman Empire and the rise of Germany.

Even the wikipedia entry on this topic is quick to try and correct some of the many false images we have of this event and its ramifications:

Most basically, the city of Rome had not been the center of the Roman Empire for two generations by 410 CE, and the Empire had been shifted to the East (Constantinople) even earlier. Alaric was thoroughly part of the military culture of the Empire, not an outsider or foreign invader, and Visigoths themselves had been ~romanized~ for a couple centuries. So the Sack of Rome was far, far from a horde of foreign invaders attacking the capitol of an empire. You might say it was more like an attempt to seize more power by someone who didn't want to concede the orderly transfer away from the party that supported him to those that were more popular.

Posted by
838 posts

Just down the road on a bend in the Lewis River, the local farm stand sells a Sack of Jawea.

I'm told it's very self-serving.

Posted by
3252 posts

Avi, not only did I learn some new info but I also learned two new words that I am absolutely going to need to use.

Posted by
2316 posts

Buy two sacks and you get a cuddly Gladly, the cross-eyed bear, for free.

Posted by
1130 posts

it's a fabulation that seeks to elevate our view of the seeds of the Holy Roman Empire

And the sack some 1100 years later would be a demonstration of the full-fruit of those seeds.

Posted by
2922 posts

The entire history of Rome involves an outside power (the Romans) coming in and destroying a local culture. On Prime Video, there is a series, Britannia, which attempts to examine the invasion of Britain in 80 CE by the Romans. It's probably accurate in a lot of ways, in that the Romans brutally suppress the locals, attempt as much as possible to divide them, and are not there to improve the situation for the locals. In the west, it is common to identify with the Romans, but being of Germanic origin, I celebrate the destruction of the legions in the Teutenberg Forest by Arminius.

Posted by
2316 posts

Interesting perspective, Paul-FN --
I wonder if our / your reaction would be different if instead of all the gladiator movies of the last 80 years having the main characters speak with British accents that they had used actors with Teutonic accents. I've been thinking that so many what you call 'westerners' get their sense of Rome (in several senses) from "I, Claudius" -- basically British stage plays (Pinter, Coward, etc.) with the characters costumed in togas and sandals rather than anything anywhere near resembling the actual people, times, or places that comprised the Roman Empire.

As an exercise I like to imagine well-known (or well-worn) scenes from pop history of the 20th century with the figures speaking in Dolly Parton's or Edith Bunker's voice and then see what impression they make. And of course the obvious king of all this in Christendom is the portrait of Jesus as a ginger English public school lad in Birkenstocks smiling benignly.

It's interesting, too, that you say you side with the Goths rather than the Romans -- I myself tend to think that the Norman/French influence on England couldn't have come too soon; that the Latinate inmixing into the Germanic peoples on the island was what added enduring interest in their culture and civilisation. I feel the same about the Japanese islands -- Jomon culture was no great shakes until they imported real sophistication from China and Korea and adopted/adapted it for their own. (That's putting it diplomatically, I realize.)

Posted by
1566 posts

It's also interesting to read about the Longobard / Lombard 'invasion' in the late 6th century. They didn't so much invade as seeped in, taking over the ruling class and leaving the great majority of inhabitants to live their humble lives. They were big on St. Michael once they converted so there are fascinating hybrid sites such as San Michele di Pagana (yes, St. Michael of the Pagan) between Rapallo and Santa Margarita and the Sanctuary of St. Michael at Monte Sant'Angelo in the Gargano.