One thousand five hundred and sixty-seven years ago on this date—June 2—an event occurred that gave rise to the term “vandalism.” It was the Sack of Rome in the year 455, and it was the Vandals who did it.
It was not the first time the imperial, Eternal City was ravaged, and it would not be the last. Gallic Celts pillaged republican Rome in 387 B.C. Eight centuries later, in 410 A.D., the Visigoths led by Alaric burned, murdered, and ransacked for three days. The last sack of Rome in ancient times occurred at the hands of the Visigoths in 476 A.D. and is generally regarded as the death knell of the Western Roman Empire.
What the Celts, Visigoths, Vandals and Ostrogoths did to Rome, hoodlums on a smaller scale did to Minneapolis, New York, Portland and Chicago in 2020 but for this significant difference: The barbarians who assaulted Rome were foreigners.
The Sack of Rome that began on June 2 in 455 lasted fourteen days. The Vandals first disabled the city’s vaunted aqueducts, depriving the citizens of water. The extent of the damage they inflicted in those terrifying two weeks is debated by historians, but we know for sure that they ripped off every speck of gold and silver they could carry. Twenty-one years later, there was little precious metal left when the Ostrogoths moved in to plunder and occupy.
Rome as a self-governing republic endured for almost 500 years before giving way to the imperial autocracy of the Empire, which persisted in the West for another 500 years. The Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul), kept going until its demise at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
A superficial analysis of the fall of Rome (in the West) would suggest that foreign invaders killed it. But imagine someone with COVID who jumps from a plane at 35,000 feet without a parachute. It’s a lousy coroner who would pronounce the man “dead from COVID.” The coroner would be dead right about “dead” but the jumper actually expired with COVID, not from COVID. Likewise, foreign barbarians were a nuisance to Rome, but the cause of death was suicide.
Edward Gibbon authored one of the most famous histories of ancient Rome but came to the wrong conclusion. He thought Christians and Christianity did the Romans in. That’s ludicrous, as I explained in What Gibbon Got Wrong.
Here’s what some of the better historians conclude (does any of it ring a bell?):
In Gaius Marius, The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Savior, Marc Hyden writes,
The Republic’s constitution was increasingly circumvented, bent and ignored until it appeared to be more of a suggestion rather than the rule of law. The Republic’s forefathers had prudently instituted constitutional forms and limits on power for good reason, but the people seemed eager to disregard the founder’s foresight out of myopic convenience. In Rome, it was discovered that when a politician bent the nation’s rule of law out of expediency, other statesmen increasingly followed the poor example. The law was then incrementally perverted, and each action was often more perverse than its predecessor. The cycle continued, and the results were devastating as Rome struggled to exist as a functional republic.
Hyden’s observation squares with that of Will Durant, who argued that “The political causes of decay were rooted in one fact—that increasing despotism destroyed the citizen’s civic sense and dried up statesmanship at its source.” In the Epilogue to his magisterial Caesar and Christ, Durant wrote:
A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.
Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (56 A.D. – 120 A.D.) practiced law, served in the Roman Senate, and wrote enough and so well that he is considered one of the greatest historians of antiquity. He witnessed a marked decay of Rome in his own lifetime.
Tacitus lamented the demise of the liberties of the old Republic and the rise of emperors of dubious character. “Lust of absolute power is more burning than all the passions,” he wrote. “When men of talents are punished, authority is strengthened,” he explained in a line that sounds like it could have sprung from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Tacitus deplored sleazy legislators who stole from taxpayers to enrich themselves and their friends: “And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.”
Titus Livius, known as Livy in English, lived from 58 B.C. to 17 A.D. He authored a sweeping history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, from its founding (753 BC) through the creation of the Republic (508 BC) and on up to the rule of its first Emperor, Augustus (who reigned at the time of the birth of Christ and died in 14 AD). He saw the erosion of personal character as the source of Rome’s rot:
The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these–the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.
As eerie parallels between today’s societies and that of ancient Rome echo all around us, we’re overdue for a wake-up call. Maybe that should start with serious understanding of exactly what killed Rome, as well as many other once-great civilizations. I hope the reading list below will assist toward that end.
For additional information, see:
Six Infamous Sacks of Rome by Evan Andrews
Vandal Kingdom in Africa and the Sack of Rome, 455 (video)
Everything You Need to Know About the Vandals (video)
What Gibbon Got Wrong About the Fall of Rome by Lawrence W. Reed
Lecture on the Fall of Rome and Modern Parallels by Lawrence W. Reed
Are We Rome? By Lawrence W. Reed
Didius Julianus: The Man Who Purchased an Empire by Lawrence W. Reed
How Great Civilizations Rise and Fall: Learning from Livy by Lawrence W. Reed
The Keen Mind of Historian Edith Hamilton by Lawrence W. Reed
The Tyranny of the Short-Run: What I Would Tell the Romans by Lawrence W. Reed
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome (video) by Lawrence W. Reed
How a Lowly Monk Ended Rome’s Gladiatorial Duels by Lawrence W. Reed
How Mises Explained the Fall of Rome by Ludwig von Mises
The Fall of Rome Began With the Abuse of Refugees by Harrison Searles
How Roman Central Planners Destroyed Their Economy by Richard Ebeling
Rome and the Great Depression by Lawrence W. Reed
Why Rome Declined and Modern Europe Grew by Mark Koyama
Nation Building Doesn’t Work. Just Ask Rome by Marc Hyden
The Ancient Suicide of the West by Nicholas Davidson