BMCR 2014.09.27

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

, , , The Sack of Rome in 410 AD: The Event, Its Context and Its Impact. Palilia, Bd 28. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2013. 456. ISBN 9783895009440. €49.00.

Table of Contents

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.