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Tuesday marks the 1,600th anniversary of one of the turning points of European history – the first sack of Imperial Rome by an army of Visigoths, northern European barbarian tribesmen, led by a general called Alaric.
It was the first time in 800 years that Rome had been successfully invaded. The event had reverberations around the Mediterranean.
Jerome, an early Christian Church Father, in a letter to a friend from Bethlehem – where he happened to be living – wrote that he burst into tears upon hearing the news.
“My voice sticks in my throat, and, as I dictate, sobs choke me. The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken,” he said.
Although Alaric was a Christian ransacking a Christian city, there was an ominous feeling that the world structure built by pagan Rome was disintegrating.
The Roman Empire survived for a few more decades, and later other armies sacked the city again, but this was the date which marked the beginning of the end of Rome’s grandeur.
Centuries later, the city which had at the height of its power boasted a population of more than a million people, was reduced to a lawless, ruined village of no more than 30,000 residents.
Marching in unopposed
Pagans claimed that Christians had destroyed the greatest human achievement ever contrived.
And Christians themselves, who had boasted that they had saved whatever was good in ancient civilisation, lifting it to new heights, suffered a crisis of confidence.
Although the now-Christian Roman Empire was divided between an Emperor of the West, ruling with his court from the city of Ravenna in Northern Italy and a rival Emperor of the East, ruling from Constantinople, there was a feeling that there had been a breakdown at the centre of things, in fabled Rome.
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“The moment the Roman Emperor did not pay any more they changed sides and sacked the town”
Philipp Von Rummel
German Archaeological Centre, Rome
Historians and archaeologists from Germany, Switzerland, Britain and the United States specialising in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire have decided to meet in Rome in October and November to pool their latest research about this first Sack of Rome.
One of the organisers of the conference is Philipp Von Rummel of the German Archaeological Centre in Rome.
I asked him if 24 August 410 might be considered the 9/11 of the ancient world.
“Probably even more so,” he replied. “I don’t know if people will still be talking about 9/11 in 2,000 years time, but the events of that August day still influence our contemporary view of history.”
Who exactly were the Visigoths, the barbarians from the North who marched unopposed into Rome?
Mr Von Rummel says the latest research reveals a very different picture from that held as recently as 50 years ago.
“Today we know the group consisted of different people, it was mainly an army with a successful leader. People joined this group inside the Roman Empire. They sacked a lot of towns but they acted in different ways, they also were a sometime partner of the Romans,” he said.
“The moment the Roman emperor did not pay any more they changed sides and sacked the town just to tell the emperor: ‘You should pay us’.”
Looting and pillaging
I went to look for evidence at the northern walls of Rome, still almost intact for long stretches after nearly two millennia.
There is a gap marking the site of the former Salarian Gate just across the road from a modern department store. Alaric’s army took the Via Salaria – the so-called salt road – linking the city to the Adriatic Sea.
When the city gates were opened by slaves, Alaric’s ragtag army rushed inside to loot and pillage. The sack lasted for only three days, after which Alaric withdrew and marched south to set sail for North Africa, an important and wealthy Roman province.
But Alaric never made it. His ships were destroyed in a storm and he died shortly afterwards.
Many Romans fled to North Africa for safety. There, in Hippo, an important coastal town in what is now Algeria, the local bishop, Saint Augustine, was inspired to write one of his seminal works, The City of God.
Augustine, just like Jerome, felt he had lost his bearings with news of the collapse of Rome. Once Rome had gone, what sense was to be made of the world?
Judith and Holofernes, 1599 (oil on canvas) by Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da (1571-1610) Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy
Caravaggio’s art is made from darkness and light. His pictures present spotlit moments of extreme and often agonised human experience. A man is decapitated in his bedchamber, blood spurting from a deep gash in his neck. A man is assassinated on the high altar of a church. Faces are brightly illuminated. Yet always the shadows encroach, pools of blackness that threaten to obliterate all.
Caravaggio’s life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights. He was one of the most original artists ever to have lived, yet we have only one solitary sentence from him on the subject of painting – the sincerity of which is, in any case, questionable, since it was elicited when he was under interrogation for the capital crime of libel.
Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon: review
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. He lived much of his life as a fugitive, but is caught, now and again, by the sweeping beam of a searchlight.
Caravaggio throws stones at the house of his landlady and sings ribald songs outside her window. He has a fight with a waiter about the dressing on a plate of artichokes. He taunts a rival with graphic sexual insults. He attacks a man in the street. He is involved in a fatal swordfight.
Anyone attempting a biography of Caravaggio must play the detective as well as the art historian. His life can easily seem merely chaotic, the rise and fall of an incurable hot-head, a man so governed by passion that his actions unfold without rhyme or reason.
But there is a logic to it all and, with hindsight, a tragic inevitability.
|Medieval Medicine Western medicine advanced very little in Europe during the Middle Ages. Scholarship fell into the religious sphere, and clerics were more interested in curing the soul than the body. Many theologians considered disease and injury to be the result of supernatural intervention and insisted that cures were only possible through prayer. No new medical research was conducted, and no new practices were created. Physicians simply perpetuated the church-approved classical techniques developed by Galen and others that were preserved in ornately decorated, hand-copied texts produced by monks. Christian concern for the ill and injured, as well as contact with the Arab world during the crusades, did, however, lead to the creation of many large hospitals built and run by monastic orders. Although little was done to cure the patients, they were usually well fed and comforted by a religious nursing staff.
Although medicine and surgery were related, medieval practitioners drew a distinct line between them. Generally, physicians treated problems inside the body, and surgeons dealt with wounds, fractures, dislocations, urinary problems, amputations, skin diseases, and syphilis. They also bled patients when directed by physicians. Many of today’s surgeons can trace the origins of their specialties to the teeth-pullers, bone-setters, oculists, and midwives of the middle ages.
Epidemics of the Past
- Ring around the rosy,
- A pocket full of posies,
- Ashes … ashes,
- We all fall down.