Sack of 410
In the year 410 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alaric, besieged and plundered Rome. This was the first time in 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy, but it was a long time in coming. The empire had long been plagued by German incursions, and in many cases solved the problem by paying other Germans to fight them off. Theodosius signed a treated with the Visigoths which declared them to be subjects of the empire, but autonomous subjects. Alaric later fought alongside Theodosius in the battle that would unite the empire for the last time under one rule. In that battle, Theodosius made sure to order the Visigoth troops to charge before sending in his Roman troops, killing half of them. We can be sure Alaric took that lesson to heart.
He resumed hostilities with Rome not long after the emperor’s death, and laid siege to the city twice, each time leaving when he was bought off. The third time the payoff did not come, and on August 24, 410, slaves opened the gates to the barbarians, who poured in and looted it for three days. The city’s great buildings were ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors were raided and their ashes were scattered to the wind. The city was devastated, and many Romans were taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many felt, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”
There was one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.
Sack of 455
In 455, Rome was besieged again, this time by the Vandals. Emperor Maximus fled the city rather than fight them off. The only authority left in the city was Pope Leo. He negotiated with the Vandals, and got them to agree not to destroy the city or murder its inhabitants. The gates were opened for them, and they plundered Rome for the next 14 days. However, they largely kept their word, refraining from violence or burning down buildings.
This was the second time Leo had acted in such a capacity. A few years earlier, Attila the Hun had invaded Italy, and sacking cities and making his way to Rome. Leo was sent with an envoy to negotiate with Attila, and he succeeded in convincing Attila to not only spare the capital, but withdraw from Italy altogether.
It is not hard to imagine what this did for the position of the church. Rulers and political leaders had failed at their most basic task of keeping people safe. But where they fled for their own lives, the Pope stayed behind and did the job that they were supposed to do. It is here that the Papacy really starts to become the Papacy as we know it. Staying out of politics and away from temporal power was no longer even a possibility; when it mattered most, the church was the only temporal power left.
City of God
Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God.
The City of Man is bound together by a common love for temporal things, while the City of God is bound together by the love of God. The former exists largely to suppress the crime and some of the more blatant results of sin, but it’s the City of God which we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal. “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.”
While Augustine lay on his death bed, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.
This is a happy ending
This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The Church survives.