Sunday, November 5, 2017

On the Fall of Rome

On this day, August 24, 410, the city of Rome, once master of the Mediterranean, fell to Alaric and his Visigoth armies. Someone opened the city gate from within. The Medieval historian Procopius says this may have been done by slaves that Alaric had treacherously given as a token of friendship to the Senators or by the servants of an aristocratic woman who felt the city had suffered long enough.

Afterward, refugees showed up all around the Mediterranean world. In Palestine, Bible translator Jerome described formerly haughty women who would now be happy to work for a crust of bread. He wrote letters lamenting the fall of the imperial city. Like everyone else, he could not avoid the symbolism of the event. "My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken..."

In the sack of Rome, Christians died alongside pagans. Some Christian women suffered rape, although the Visigoths claimed to be Christians, too. Some of these women, following the historical example of the famous pagan girl, Lucretia, killed themselves for shame. Others fled to North Africa as refugees, where they were taunted by pagans, who asked them why their God did not protect them or else accused them of cowardice for not killing themselves.

Why had Christians suffered in the taking of Rome? According to the Bible, God would have spared Sodom if there had been just ten righteous souls in it. Yet here was a city with thousands of Christians--a major church center, too--and yet God allowed it to be ravaged. Pagans blamed Christian pacifists.

Various people put this question to the greatest living Christian thinker of the day. Augustine of Hippo responded by writing a masterpiece, The City of God and the City of Man. This was the world's first "modern" history in the sense that it offered an account of world history with a teleological explanation--that is, an explanation showing that events have "purpose," or destination.

Augustine took a different approach than Jerome. Giving a Christian interpretation to the events, he pointed out that the barbarian invaders had spared most of the churches and that even pagans had taken refuge in the Christian churches. Christians had always suffered and would always suffer, in this world, he noted. To phrase it in modern cliche, God had never promised the Christian a bed of roses. (Read more.)

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