It was on the 24th of August, in the year 410 of the common era, that the unthinkable came to pass. A guerrilla army, led by a renegade Roman general named Alaric, who had been brought up in a German-speaking community outside the actual boundaries of the Roman empire, ended years of threats and intimidation by invading the city of Rome itself. For three days they remained, destroying, looting, and killing. The exact loss of life was never known and may have been less than fears of the moment said it was, but the experience was a shattering one nonetheless. It had been 800 years since the last such defeat of the city, 800 years in which Rome had grown to be the greatest city in the world, the envy of the nations, the model for what a great city was like.

The shock was felt throughout the Roman world. In far-off Bethlehem, the scholar and monk Jerome, so prolific that one might think of him as the Stephen King of his time, could not work.

Here are his words: "And I was stunned and stupefied, so much so that I couldn't think about anything else day and night. I felt as if I were being held hostage myself and couldn't even open my mouth until I knew for sure what had happened. Hanging there, caught between hope and despair, I was torturing myself with the thought of what others were suffering. But after the brightest light of all the lands was extinguished — after the head of the whole Roman empire was lopped off — to speak truly, after the whole world had perished in a single city: I fell silent and was humbled, and I kept my silence and my sorrow was renewed. My heart grew warm within me and fire blazed up in my thoughts ..."

I have been reading and thinking about the events of 410 for over thirty years, but never with the intensity and compassion that I have known since that other ghastly day last September. So forgive me: I am a historian, and I have a story to tell this afternoon. History of this kind offers us a way to think about our world — but it offers no obvious or simple answers to our questions. I hope you will give me leave to provoke you for a while.

Roman government's response to the crisis was military and ineffective. The Roman emperor had years earlier moved his western court to the northern Italian city of Ravenna, protected by surrounding marshes and with a sea-lane for escape, but he sent his troops to pursue the enemy, then negotiate with him, then pursue him some more. From the official perspective, the issue was simple: barbarism versus civilization. The renegade general and his followers were demonized, pursued, and feared. Within a few years, they had migrated to what is now modern Spain and settled there, establishing a regime that thrived independent of Rome for three hundred years - until the Islamic invasions.

The years that followed were marked by a series of such migrations. The Spanish kingdom we call Visigothic, after the ancestral people of their generals. Within the century, Roman Africa fell into the hands of the Vandals from northern Europe, Roman Gaul into the hands of the Franks (who would give their country a name it still holds), and Italy itself became the homeland of the Ostrogoths. Barbarism had triumphed. To be sure, Roman armies in this period were recruited heavily from among the same peoples, and it happened more than once in the fifth century that you could not tell the Romans on a given battlefield without a scorecard - on one occasion two different contenders for the imperial throne itself fought each other through proxy armies led respectively by Vandals and by Visigoths.

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