Rome

A brilliant Goth’s-eye view of the sack of Rome – The Economist

Alaric the Goth. By Douglas Boin.W.W. Norton; 272 pages; $26.95 and £19.99.

THE SMOKE began to rise above the orange-tiled roofs of the eternal city on August 24th 410AD. The watchmen had not seen the gate being opened; they had not seen Alaric the Goth creep in. But as night turned to day, they saw his works. Rome had been besieged and starved on and off for two years; it was said to be so hungry that mothers fed on their babies rather than vice versa. Now it burned and bled. Ancient basilicas went up in flames. Women were raped in the streets; an elderly one was cudgelled as she begged for mercy.

Amid this panorama of carnage there was one more piece of destruction that is often overlooked: the annihilation of the Gothic reputation. Today, as Douglas Boin of Saint Louis University points out in his superb book, the word “Gothic” has become synonymous with all that is “dark, gloomy and macabre”. History, it is often said, is written by the winners—but that is only if they can write. If they can’t, then history is written by the losers, crossly.

Almost as soon as Alaric, ostensibly the victor, decamped to move across Italy, the pens of Rome’s greatest authors were moving across the page. Goths could write a bit but they couldn’t match this. “My voice sticks in my throat,” lamented St Jerome, “sobs choke my utterance.” The monk Pelagius recorded the universal “terror of
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