24 August 410: Rome sacked by the Visigoth army

Citizens butchered and valuables stolen as Eternal City falls


For centuries afterwards, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 reverberated as one of the darkest days in world history. The birthplace of the empire, the spiritual capital of the Christian world, had fallen to the barbarians.

In fact, Rome’s importance in the early fifth century was largely symbolic. Following the division of the empire, power had moved to the new capitals of Constantinople and Ravenna, and the ageing city was manifestly in decline. Even so, as Alaric’s Visigothic army approached, its fall seemed almost unimaginable.

But then, according to legend, a group of disaffected slaves opened the Salarian Gate, and in poured the barbarian army. And so, “1163 years after the foundation of Rome”, wrote Edward Gibbon, “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 sack lasted three days, during which the Visigoths burned and ransacked some of the city’s landmarks, raped and killed several citizens and seized others as slaves. In fact, by the standards of the day they were pretty restrained, but that was little consolation. “My voice sticks in my throat, and as I dictate, sobs choke me,” the theologian St Jerome recorded. “The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken... Who would have believed that mighty Rome, with its careless security of wealth, would be reduced to such extremities as to need shelter, food and clothing?

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