“Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one man depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. Influenced by such a variety of complexities, many of our contemporaries are kept from accurately identifying permanent values and adjusting them properly to fresh discoveries. As a result, buffeted between hope and anxiety and pressing one another with questions about the present course of events, they are burdened down with uneasiness. This same course of events leads men to look for answers; indeed, it forces them to do so.” -Gaudium et Spes 4
A decade into the fifth century, Alaric the Goth sacked the city of Rome. The event caused consternation throughout the world and people searched for explanations for how something previously unthinkable became reality. When news reached an irascible translator of Scripture in Bethlehem named Jerome, he wept bitterly. The scholar struggled to comprehend how an army of Visigoths, warriors who had recently fought for the Roman Empire, could sack the historic city.
Although Jerome’s reaction was understandable, the city’s sacking should not have been a surprise. A review of imperial actions toward the Germanic tribes on the borders in the recent past would have equipped Jerome to predict the destruction of Rome. However, Jerome was focused on the present and could not anticipate it—or at least not fail to be surprised by it. But if he had been equipped with historical perspective and context, he could have been spared much the anguish caused by the devastating news of Rome’s ruin.
An historical perspective of Roman relations with the Germanic tribes on the frontier would have helped Jerome remember, for example, the annihilation of three Roman army legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. Arminius, a chief of the Germanic Cherusci tribe, who had been a hostage in the imperial capital as a boy, served the empire in the Roman army. He was ordered to Germania to help the Romans subdue the populace but did not forget his origins; so instead, he secretly planned the defeat of the legions. Arminius’s victory ended Roman plans for conquest east of the Rhine River, which became the natural border between the empire and the northern Germanic hordes. The Romans built forts and outposts along the Rhine, which later became major European cities, to control the Germans and guard the empire against invasion.
Over the centuries, Germanic tribes along the border grew restless and desired admittance into the empire in order to enjoy its economic, political, and military benefits. Many were allowed entrance in the later fourth and early fifth centuries, as Rome turned to these warriors to provide needed manpower to staff the army. Roman anxiety concerning the Germanic peoples remained, however, and the barbarian warriors were usually treated as auxiliary troops attached to imperial units rather than as regular army units. This arrangement worked for a time until Alaric, a Romanized commander of Gothic auxiliary troops, demanded greater recognition for his troops’ courage and sacrifice. When Roman officials refused, Alaric unleashed his warriors on the majestic imperial city.
Alaric’s sack produced different reactions throughout the empire. While Jerome wept in Bethlehem, others turned to anger. Despite the legalization of the Catholic Church nearly a century prior and its recognition as the official religion of the empire thirty years before, paganism still existed in the Roman world. As they had in the Church’s early centuries, pagans again placed blame on Christians for the destruction of the imperial capital, claiming that nothing so catastrophic had happened to Rome when the empire worshipped the old gods.
The false idea that the empire flourished only until it embraced the Christian faith gained favor in public discourse and demanded a response. St. Augustine (354-430) addressed these criticisms in his influential work The City of God.
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