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Posts Tagged ‘Augustine’

Detail from The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths by JN Sylvestre, 1890.

“At the hour of midnight, the Salerian gate was silently opened, and the inhabitants were awakened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet.  Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia” (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. 31).

With these words the English historian Edward Gibbon captured the sacking of Rome by Alaric king of the Visigoths on August 24, A.D. 410.   Although the Western empire did not officially come to an end until A.D. 476, the sacking of Rome by Alaric was certainly an indication of the Empire’s fast approaching end. 

As something of a history buff myself, I’ve often wondered what it was like for people who witnessed the end of their civilization.  It must have been terrible and terrifying.  One wonders at the horror that must have filled the hearts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem when the Babylonian army broke through the city walls in 586 B.C. and proceeded to destroy the city and burn the temple, which at that time had stood for over 300 years.

Reflecting on the excerpt above from Gibbon, what was it like for the Romans, and even non-Romans, in A.D. 410 to hear that Rome had been taken by a barbarian Germanic king? 

At the time of the sacking of Rome, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa found himself confronted by many angry and puzzled questioners, many of whom were refugees from Alaric’s invasion of Italy, asking how, if Christianity were true, God could allow Christian civilization – recall that Constantine had become the first, at least nominally, Christian emperor about a century earlier – to be destroyed by a pagan barbarian king and his army?        

That bishop, as you may already be aware, was none other than Aurelius Augustine, the greatest theologian of the early church.

According to one scholar,

More than any other single episode the sacking of Rome gave Augustine a reason to write the City of God. After 410 he found exiles, those escaping the disturbing events in Italy, arriving in North Africa where he was now Bishop of Hippo and asking how he could explain this collapse of a Christian Empire.  It was their angry challenge that led him to begin work on a book which was to appear in episodes stretching over many years of composition (G. R. Evans, Introduction, City of God. Penguin Books, London, 2003, ix).

It seems to me that, although our present circumstances are in certain important respects different from those faced by Augustine in his day, nevertheless there are some important similarities.  While Rome in the fifth century was sacked and burned by outside forces, America today is being sacked and burned – in some ways literally, in others figuratively – by forces from within.  In both cases – Rome in A.D. 410; America in A.D. 2021 – the civilizations were in advanced states of decay well in advance of their sacking.  One may fairly view the two events not as the beginning of their respective civilization’s collapse, but as another, more overt, step along the way to their demise. 

The comparison of Rome’s sacking in 410 to the events in America over the past year – namely, the massive civil unrest carried out by BLM and Antifa and supported by the political, business, entertainment and academic establishments; the brutal Covid lockdowns in defiance of the Constitution, medical precedent, and the teachings of Scripture; and an overtly stolen presidential election –  can be instructive to Christians today, because many of the same problems that plague America and the West today are the same problems that plagued Rome in Augustine’s day, and the answers he gave to his critics are just as applicable now as they were then. 

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