Why do we continue to be fascinated by the sacking of the city of Rome? Our obsession with the city’s destruction and the purported fall of the Roman Empire often speaks not to historical reality or the true identity of ancient barbarians. More often, this infatuation reflects modern fears and xenophobia—which are fed by confusing illustrations used in online media.
It is rather disturbing to see how widely 19th-century depictions of the destruction of Rome are used to illustrate news stories today, particularly those that purport to explain who the Goths and Vandals really were, or those that seek to draw parallels between Rome and the United States. There are even ones that draw a parallel between the sacking of the city and the fire at Notre Dame. From the BBC to Vox, because there are no contemporaneous images of the sacking of Rome in the late Roman empire, media outlets often default to using anachronistic paintings of “barbarians.” These depictions transmit grave inaccuracies. Most bear little resemblance either to what the Romans or the “barbarians” actually looked like at the time and must be understood on their own terms if we are to continue to use them to illustrate ancient events.
In August of 410 CE, the city of Rome was sacked for the first time in almost 800 years. The last time Rome had dealt with outsiders taking the city, it had been a band of Gauls in 387/6 BCE. The Gallic sack took place many centuries before Rome would become a pan-Mediterranean empire. In 410, it was Gothic troops — a group originating from around the Baltic area — who sacked the city. These Goths were led by a former Roman soldier named Alaric. These Goths seized the city in a raid on the capital that would send shockwaves through other cities within the ancient Mediterranean. The event inspired Augustine to respond with The City of God and an emotional Saint Jerome later noted in a letter that as he recalled the event, “my voice sticks in my throat.”