The Vandal Sack of Rome

Gregory DiPippo

When historians of antiquity speak of “the Sack of Rome”, they generally mean the sack perpetrated by the Goths in A.D. 410. This event was particularly notorious as the first time Rome had been assaulted by a foreign enemy in 800 years. It also became the occasion for the writing of one of the great literary classics of Western civilization, St Augustine’s City of God, which is in large part a reply to those pagans who claimed that Rome had fallen because she had abandoned the worship of her ancestral gods.

Today, however, is the anniversary of another and greater sack that took place 45 years later, by a Germanic tribe called the Vandals, under their king Genseric. The Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III (425-55) had betrothed his daughter Eudocia to Genseric’s son, as part of a peace treaty with the Vandals, who had long raided the coastal cities of the Mediterranean, and taken over the Roman province of Africa. (St Augustine had died as they were besieging his city, Hippo.) But the marriage was delayed because the girl was only three or four years old. In 455, a senator called Petronius Maximus assassinated Valentinian, forcibly married his wife Licinia, and married his own son to Eudocia. Licinia then wrote to Genseric asking to be rescued from the usurper; the Vandal king, glad of a pretext to attack Rome, took the breaking of his son’s engagement as a violation of the treaty, and set sail with his fleet for Italy.

Even before the Vandals landed at Ostia, the port of Rome, news of their departure from Africa had reached the city, causing widespread panic, and the flight of many of its inhabitants. When the Vandals had come in sight of the city itself, Petronius, recognizing that he lacked the military forces necessary to defend it, fled with some of his soldiers. According to one report, he was caught by an angry mob and stoned to death, but according to another, murdered by one of the soldiers; this was in only the 10th week of his reign.

The hero of this terrible moment in Rome’s history is another Church Father and great Latinist, Pope St Leo I (440-61). Three years earlier, he had successfully dissuaded Attila the Hun from invading Italy. (How exactly he did this remains a mystery.) Although he was unable to similarly dissuade Genseric, the Vandal did agree not to put the city to fire or engage in a whole-sale massacre of its residents. This is all the more remarkable since the Vandals were Arian heretics, and had fiercely persecuted the Catholics in Africa, while St Leo was one of his era’s greatest defenders of orthodox Christianity.

Nevertheless, a good number of people were taken captive and later brought back to Africa to be sold as slaves. The city itself was not destroyed, but it was violently plundered, and historians generally agree that this plundering must have been considerably worse than that which took place in 410, since the Goths had only ransacked it for three days, while the Vandals did so for two weeks. Eudocia was captured as she tried to flee with her mother and sister, and finally married off to Genseric’s son.

Despite the significance of this event in Rome’s history, the term “vandalism” and the use of the word “vandal” to mean someone who damages or destroys something of cultural importance is very modern. It was coined by one Henri Grégoire (1750-1831), a French revolutionary and, under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, usurper of the episcopal see of Blois. Despite his support for the revolution, he was in some ways a moderate; he decried the widespread destruction of France’s cultural patrimony that took place during the revolution, and was the first to use the term “vandalisme” to describe it. Ironically, he himself was, in terms of his nation’s non-material patrimony, one of its most terrible vandals, since he aggressively promoted the annihilation (his word) of France’s many local dialects, and the forcible imposition of Parisian French as the nation’s only language.

(The Vandal Sack of Rome, 1833-36, by the Russian painter Karl Bryullov (1799-1852), now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)ex

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