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Saturday, 13 November 2010

410 AD The Sack of Rome, Conference 4-6 Nov. 2010 (in which I visit the Eternal City and find that some elements of the historiographical landscape are equally, well, eternal)

The absence of distinctive Gothic costume
and material culture graphically explained
Last week I went to Rome for the conference '410 AD The Sack of Rome', organised by the Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut, Rome, and by Philipp von Rummel and Carlos Machado in particular.  Nothing so fries your brain as a quadrilingual conference, especially when your grasp of one of the languages involved (Italian in my case) is pretty slender.  That said, it was a very successful conference and the published proceedings should make a very valuable volume for scholars interested in the subject.  Sadly I fear it won't reach far outside that audience, but such is always the way of these things. 

Here is a brief account of what went on, insofar as I understood it...

The Papers
Thursday 4 November: After the usual preliminaries by the Great and Good, Philipp von Rummel got things under way with a brief but perceptive overview of the problems involved in studying the sack of Rome as an archaeological problem.  Difficulties of precise dating loom large of course but so too does knowing how a sack would manifest itself in the archaeological record, and indeed of knowing what exactly the 'sack' itself comprised of.  After this, Christoph Riedwig described the conference held at the Swiss Institute on 'The Sack of Rome, 410, and the revival of the eternal city', which had a rather more textual and 'history of ideas' focus than the present conference, meaning that the two complemented each other quite well.

After these preliminaries, Arnaldo Marcone gave a lengthy run-down of the symbolic importance of Rome in imperial sources from the Battle of Adrianople onwards and then, more interestingly, Carlos Machado spoke on 'The Roman Aristocracy Before and after the Sack'.  What Machado showed quite graphically was a dramatic shrinking of horizons in the interests and indeed the geographical make-up of the Roman senatorial aristocracy after 410.  He also, very interestingly, pointed up the factional divides within the senate and highlighted their absolutely central involvement in the events of 408-410, making clear the complicity of some of the most powerful noble families in events such as the raising up of the usurper Attalus.  What I thought was interesting, from a personal point of view, was just how little connection there was between the Roman aristocracy (in its composition and in the areas it served in) and Gaul (especially) and Spain.  Links with North Africa were extensive, perhaps unsurprisingly, but so too were links with the East.

After coffee it was the turn of the revisionist 'terrible twins', which is to say Michael Kulikowski and me.  I spoke on the subject of 'Goths and Romans'.  I'll post the whole text anon.  For now, suffice it to say that most of it was a distillation of the relevant bits of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West but with some revisions and developments.  These can be summarised thus:
1: The Gothicness of Alaric's forces may have stemmed largely from continued widespread recruitment north of the Danube, rather than from Goths settled in the Empire after 376
2: The nature of the foederati was new but not unprecedented but in the precise circumstances of the period 395-410 (the heated - and sometimes bloody - debate on the presence of barbarian troops inside the Empire) meant a closer bond between commander and soldiers
3: The title rex has a more specific resonance and particular appropriateness to a commander of foederati in rebellion
4: Kingdoms, far from being an objective, are the default option if nothing better can be obtained.  'Kingdoms are for losers'
5: Honorius' role is much more decisive than people give it credit for being

Michael's paper likewise drew on his body of work to critique the notions of barbarian migration, especially in its recent manifestations, and to show (in similar but far from identical ways to my paper) how the specific circumstances of the period led to a tense and dangerous focus on the commanders of armies of barbarian recruits and their relationships with the court.  Michael built on this a discussion of the traditional Roman means of defending Italy and how these were quite irrelevant to the situation in 408-10.  He then used post-colonial theory to reconstruct Alaric's career in terms of a subaltern mimicking of the dominant culture but one where sudden changes in the situation and the lack of precedent for his position meant that in some points of crisis, unable to obtain what he wanted from the inside, he had to fall back on 'playing the part' assigned to him within the ideological order - that of rampaging barbarian - and to attacking the system from the outside, with dramatic results.  I hope this is not too crude a synopsis.  It was very interesting and I agreed with most of it, even if I had some problems with some elements (I think that Michael would probably say the same about my paper).

Claire Sotinel finished the session with a paper which was in its way every bit as revisionist as the other two, perhaps more so, but rather more subtly.  The paper - Quelles fortifications pour defendre la ville? De l'inefficacite des murailles de Rome devant la menace militaire - began with a detailed consideration of the epigraphic evidence for the heightening and strengthening of the Aurelianic Walls in the first decade of the 5th century and found it wanting - quite convincingly.  She then moved on, in a way that fit quite well with Michael Kulikowski's paper, to argue that in most regards the Romans had very little idea of quite what to do about defending Rome, as discussions of the subject focused almost exclusively on ideological issues (that is the Emperor as the bulwark of Rome) or religious ones (that Rome was to be defended by prayer). 

The session after lunch began with a lengthy discussion - a catalogue - of the descriptions of the sack of Rome to be found in contemporary and near-contemporary sources, by Ralph Mathisen.  This pointed up some interesting contradictions and correspondences.  Overall one could get the impression that most writers did not rate the sack as a matter of great destruction, and that references to fire and sword were comparatively rare.  As Orosius said seven years later, to go to Rome and talk to Romans 'nowadays' you could be forgiven for thinking that it had never happened, were it not for a few charred ruins here and there.  I think it is easy to make too much of this statement in playing down the violence of 410 but what Ralph's survey made very clear was  that it was not easy to get a very coherent picture of Alaric's sack from the contemporary sources.  Mischa Meier followed this up with a very long paper on Orosius' observations on Alaric and the sack of Rome, but I am afraid that he spoke quickly and quietly and the room was very hot so that I have to admit that I didn't get a very clear idea of his argument.

The day's final session was on the monumental centre of the city and began with a very interesting (if evidently controversial) paper by Johannes Lipps on the forum Romanum, which argued that the oft-cited evidence of the sack of 410 was nothing of the sort and that the destruction and rebuilding that took place on the site was to be seen in a much broader context and over a longer time-span.  The paper in the forum of Caesar by Roberto Meneghini et al. tended to back this up by showing that there were changes on the fora but ones related to changes in use.  Interestingly these seemed to focus on the use of the space for manufacturing or inductrial processes - a development that can be paralleled on Roman public buildings from the later fourth century onwards right across the western Empire, from as far away as Britain.  Similarly, data from Trastevere and the Campus Martius while showing evidence of change, provided little by way of any sort of confirmation or illustration of the events of 410.

Friday 5 November: Friday's morning session very much continued the theme of Thursday afternoon, with papers on the Caelian Hill and on the Aventine which tended further to underline the absence of clear evidence for the sack itself.  Nonetheless what could not be avoided was the fact that Rome itself was very much in the process of transformation, with areas of former habitation being deserted or turned over to new purposes.  Inevitably, though, the archaeological data could not pin this down to being the result of specific events (whether of 410 or 455 [the Vandal sack] or whatever) or more simply the manifestation of a longer process with quite separate causes.  Simon Malmberg, rounded the session off with a very interesting paper on the Esquiline which, rather than looking at issues of physical destruction and violence saw rather the development of a monumental centre, again as a long process from the middle of the 4th century up to the end of the 6th, and dwelt on issues of psychological violence - in this case the building, renaming, dedication and re-dedication of churches in the course of theological controversy (controversy that, it has to be said, had more than its fair share of physical violence in its wake).

After coffee we heard about the excavation of a building in Trastevere, near Sta Maria, which underlined further the theme of change, abandonment, desertion but little by way of deliberate Gothic destruction.  (By this stage more than one person had posed the question of what one would expect.)  Clementina Panella, one of the big names of Roman archaeology, delivered a very long paper on 410 in the context of material culture.  It was long, delivered very quietly, off microphone (quite apart from being in Italian), and with PowerPoint slides whose labels were way to small to read, so I haven't got a clue what she was talking about.  From a personal point of view, the one thing I did pick up was (again) the lack of contacts between Rome and Gaul (this time as reflected in pottery finds) or even Spain, compared with those with Africa (unsurprisingly) or the Eastern Mediterranean.  Finally, Alessia Rovelli discussed the coin evidence to show that the inhabitants of Rome were making up for the inability of the imperial mints to provide the city with enough coin by minting their own copies. [If you compare this response with that in Britain at precisely the same time, you will gain a very clear index of the difference in the nature of the crisis.]

Lunch was followed by a paper on the Esquiline Treasure by Francois Baratte, which cast pretty convincing doubt on whether the treasure was indeed a treasure or whether it was buried in 410 and - for me -  a more interesting piece by Roberto Meneghini on the effects of the events of 408-10 on the city population which made very interesting (if inevitably unprovable) points about the demographic consequences of cutting off the grain supply, in terms of starvation and disease.  Using largely nineteenth-century comparative data he painted a pretty bleak picture of what the events might have meant for the population of Rome.  I found this very valuable as a counterpoint to the facts that the written sources are very vague and equivocal about the severity of the sack, and that the excavated data, left to themselves, would not show that a sack of any sort had happened.  What Meneghini was talking about would leave little by way of archaeological evidence but would still amount to a grim period.  For issues of the ethics of history, I thought this was well worth considering.  The final paper, by Riccardo Santangeli Valenziani, on the events of 410 in the archaeological record could, by popular consent (among historians), have replaced all the preceding archaeological discussions, as it summed up very clearly the overall state of play.  (That said, I suspect that the archaeologists would say that all the historical papers could have been replaced by Ralph's.  But then the archaeologists didn't really attend anything that wasn't archaeological, or by Italian archaeologists.  The way the room emptied by 1/4 to 1/3 whenever a paper on history and/or not in Italian was scheduled was pretty depressing, although it it did at least cheer me to think that other people were as bad as the British in this regard.)

The second half of the afternoon was a long one.  It kicked off with Franz Alto Bauer on buildings and donations, which made a very fascinating comparison of wealth expressed in terms of buildings and wealth in terms of the furnishings of buildings to conclude that wealth in terms of property was expressed far more in terms of the latter than the former.  This left us to reflect interestingly once again on what sorts of material cultural evidence we might expect from 410 and what the implications might be of the different reflections that we might see.  Paolo Liverano spoke about Alaric on the Lateran and the Esquiline, which went pretty well with the overall theme.  Straight on from there (and by this time we were over-running...) into a session on the impact which began with Michele Renee Salzman speaking on the church's use of the events of 410, or rather their memory, within internal Roman politics, ecclesiastical and otherwise.  This was largely on the basis of the sermons of Leo I 'the Great'.  Christine Delaplace spoke on Gothic strategy, stressing the importance of ever-changing contexts and present demands rather than long-term grand strategy.  She felt that Constantius III wanted to bring the limes back to the Loire.  I'm not sure about this, as a plan, although it might work well enough as a temporary strategy.  I think it works better for the 440s and Aetius, although even then I would see it in terms of a short-term strategy than a long-term plan.  I don't think the Romans ever decided definitively to abandon any part of the Empire.  Finally Elio Lo Cascio went through various means of attempting to calculate the population of Rome in antiquity.  I'm not sure what conclusion he came to, though he has apparently published this in many places.  By this time the horrible, hot, over-crowded room had taken its toll and I was practically poking myself in the face to stay awake.

Saturday 6 November: Sadly my insomnia kicked in big time on the night of Friday/Saturday so that I had barely had two or three hours of sleep by the time the conference was scheduled to resume on Saturday morning.  As a result I missed the first session and a bit.  This included papers on Ostia by Axel Gering, on Jerome and Orosius by Neil McLynn, on the epigraphic evidence by Sylvia Orlandi and on statues by Bryan Ward-Perkins.  I was especially disappointed to miss McLynn's paper as I had wanted to hear it and it was, apparently, very good indeed, really playing up the extent to which the sack is used by Jerome for his own purposes and how little it seems to have mattered to Orosius.

The conference's last session was I think set up to be something of a play-off between Peter Heather and Walter Pohl, representing the schools of 'Fall of Rome' and of 'Transformation of the Roman World' respectively.  I didn't hear most of Peter Heather's presentation but from what I did hear and from what emerged in questions, it was exactly the same line that he has been arguing since 1991, without modification or any real reflexion.  The Roman Empire was brought down by the exogenous pressure of barbarian incursions produced by the Huns (an idea first expressed by St Ambrose of Milan in the 380s, incidentally).  From what heard it was clear that Heather hasn't had anything new to say on the subject of Goths and Romans for twenty years.  In questions he declared that the world was irreparably changed by 420; if he meant that and it wasn't a slip of the tongue, then I think that that is just empirically wrong.  In 420 I would say that the West was on the verge of complete restoration under Constantius III and that had the emperor not dropped dead of pleurisy the next year things would probably have been very different indeed (see, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, p.234).  What brought down the Roman Empire?  Pleurisy.  ... As I always, not entirely jokingly, tell my first-years. 

Walter refused to play the part scripted for him and instead presented a useful summing up, and a view that pointed out how Heather and Ward-Perkins had essentially misconstrued the position of those who don't believe that barbarians conquered the Roman Empire, by claiming that they don't believe there was any violence. ('Transformation' is not the same as 'continuity', said Andrea Giardina in discussion afterwards.)  The process - and the debate - was more subtle and more complex than that.  That apart he did a very fine job of conciliation, and so the whole event drew to a close.

Some Reflections
As far as the historians' contributions went, there was not very much that was new.  For the most part it was the same old same old, with a few twists and tweaks here and there (or with none at all).  But it was a useful overview of the different ways of reading - or telling - the 'story' of 410, as Walter Pohl said in his paper at the end.  Machado's paper on the aristocracy was for me a bit of a highlight in that it dealt with material I didn't have very much of a handle on, and Salzman's also had some interesting material, although in that case I was not sure that the event referred to by Leo ('the days of our tribulation and salvation') needed to refer to the Gothic sack; it seemed to me that they could refer to November 312 as plausibly as to August 410. 

The archaeological papers presented masses of new and interesting data but overall it appeared to me that the story being told, or the questions being asked, were still very much (with the possible exception of Malmberg's paper) framed by the historical account.  Was the sack archaeologically visible?  Did it produce change or was there more general continuity (or slower processes of change)?  There were valuable insights (e.g. Meneghini) and more than one person pointed out that the sack could have been a quite orderly affair: the systematic stripping of movable wealth rather than the rampagings of a wild mob of savages.

But what I wondered was whether it wasn't time for the archaeologists to stop thinking in these terms and to open themselves to some different stories, not predetermined by the old narrative of the barbarian invasions.  What, for example, of the narrative of Christianisation?  This is an old story but it is nevertheless grounded, as has long been known, in some indisputable facts, such as the increasing foundation of churches within the centre of the city.  What if, say, the dereliction of old sites or their reuse for new purposes (almost all of those we know about, inevitably, being close to churches) is more about the donation of land and buildings to the Church than about simple tales of growth or decline, or of sack or continuity?  A story of the christianisation of the Roman landscape would be a narrative that would fit very well with the story that different forms of evidence tell us right across the West.  I have run an MA course entitled 'Renegotiating Rome' in which we look in turn at different corpora of evidence and see whether the story it tells us is the same as the stories modern history books tell - it almost never is.  Indeed what seems to be the real master-narrative of the fifth century is not the conquest of the Empire by Barbarians (as I had already realised when I wrote Barbarian Migrations) but the replacement of a classical world view which defined legitimacy or otherwise according to the performance of civic Roman values, by a Christian one which defined legitimacy and its alternatives according to doctrinal orthodoxy.  This is a story that the archaeology and history of Rome still have much to tell us about, far more meaningfully than they do about Alaric and the sack of Rome.


  1. Thanks - a very useful summary for people ( like me) who weren't there.

  2. Hi there Guy. very useful and informative blog.
    I am currently writing a dissertation on Responses to the Sack of Rome, 410 and was wondering if there was anything of relevance that you encountered in this conference?
    Perhaps you would be able to send me a link of the papers - I would be appreciative of any help.
    My email is hy08jd@leeds.ac.uk, I appreciate you must be very busy but would love to hear from you, even if it is a brief reply.
    Thank you,
    James Dickenson.
    3rd Year Leeds University History Student


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