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The False Narratives of the Fall of Rome Mapped Onto America

It is disturbing to see how gravely inaccurate 19th-century depictions of the destruction of Rome are used to illustrate news stories today, particularly those that draw parallels between Rome and the United States.

Thomas Cole, “Destruction” (1836), oil on canvas, at the New-York Historical Society, New York City, New York (image via Wikimedia)

Why do we continue to be fascinated by the sacking of the city of Rome? Our obsession with the city’s destruction and the purported fall of the Roman Empire often speaks not to historical reality or the true identity of ancient barbarians. More often, this infatuation reflects modern fears and xenophobia—which are fed by confusing illustrations used in online media.

It is rather disturbing to see how widely 19th-century depictions of the destruction of Rome are used to illustrate news stories today, particularly those that purport to explain who the Goths and Vandals really were, or those that seek to draw parallels between Rome and the United States. There are even ones that draw a parallel between the sacking of the city and the fire at Notre Dame. From the BBC to Vox, because there are no contemporaneous images of the sacking of Rome in the late Roman empire, media outlets often default to using anachronistic paintings of “barbarians.” These depictions transmit grave inaccuracies. Most bear little resemblance either to what the Romans or the “barbarians” actually looked like at the time and must be understood on their own terms if we are to continue to use them to illustrate ancient events.

In August of 410 CE, the city of Rome was sacked for the first time in almost 800 years. The last time Rome had dealt with outsiders taking the city, it had been a band of Gauls in 387/6 BCE. The Gallic sack took place many centuries before Rome would become a pan-Mediterranean empire. In 410, it was Gothic troops — a group originating from around the Baltic area — who sacked the city. These Goths were led by a former Roman soldier named Alaric. These Goths seized the city in a raid on the capital that would send shockwaves through other cities within the ancient Mediterranean. The event inspired Augustine to respond with The City of God and an emotional Saint Jerome later noted in a letter that as he recalled the event, “my voice sticks in my throat.”

Relief of the treasures from the Temple of Jerusalem pillaged in 70 CE being carried out. The relief was etched into the Arch of Titus, 82 CE, Rome, Italy. These treasures from Jerusalem may have been taken by the Vandals in the sack of Rome in 455 CE (image via Wikimedia).

Only a few decades after the Gothic attack of 410, in June of 455, the Eternal City would be sacked again. The two-week raid was carried out by another “barbarian” group with a similarly Germanic background to the Goths: the Vandals. These people likely originated from the middle Danube region. Their destructive actions in the late Roman empire would later influence the creation of the word “vandalism” by a French priest named Abbé Grégoire who coined the word to describe the widespread damage done by the Jacobins in the French Revolution. The Vandals took treasures from the Temple of Peace, may have absconded with the Jewish treasures brought to Rome after the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and even took the golden roof tiles that once sat atop Rome’s Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. But the city and her populace survived and lived on, despite these and other subsequent raids or occupations of the city during the period known as Late Antiquity.

The fifth-century sackings were neither the first nor the final attacks on Rome. The city would be sacked in 1527 by Charles V and his French troops. The event inspired artists like Pieter Breughel to depict the urban fate of Rome and her ancient ruins. Although the assorted sacks of the city of Rome had been jarring to the Mediterranean world at the time, they have only been recast as a metaphor for the modern collapse or decline of a civilization since about the 18th century, during the period known as the Enlightenment. Two centuries after the French sacking of Rome, French philosopher Charles de Secondat Montesquieu wrote a history of Rome that extended from its founding in 753 BCE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453: Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (1734). The book would go on to inspire a more well-known account of the rise and alleged fall of the Roman empire by a British historian named Edward Gibbon.

Pieter Bruegel, “A Panorama of the Sack of Rome” (1527), oil on wood, 16th century (image via Wikimedia).

In 1776, Gibbon presented the first of six volumes of his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to the public. It immediately became a bestseller. Interest in the decline of the Roman empire became a subject of popular fascination, particularly for White colonial men who lived in fear of losing their own grip on power and took his narrative as a cautionary tale. As ancient historian Glen W. Bowersock later put it, during the Enlightenment, the idea of the Fall of Rome became an “archetype for every perceived decline and, hence, as a symbol of our own fears.” Literary descriptions of the sacking of Rome in particular began to resonate in Europe and the United States. But it was during the neoclassical Romanticism and nation building of the 19th century that artistic depictions of the sack of Rome began to gain steam.

The most famous depiction of the sacking of the city in 455 still seen widely today in print is “Genseric’s Invasion of Rome” by Russian painter Karl Bryullov (1799–1852) painted in 1833–36. The Russian painter had trained in Rome and was part of the neoclassical movement of the time which adapted many scenes from classical antiquity for a 19th-century audience. It was this early interest in Roman history that had compelled Bryullov’s best known work: “The Last Day of Pompeii” (1830–1833), which showed the mayhem of the city of Pompeii in the midst of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The theme of disaster and panic would pervade his subsequent “Invasion of Rome” as well. However, “Genseric’s Invasion of Rome” would also include the projection of a number of modern anxieties and orientalizing aspects that reflected the fears of the time in Russia. In particular the influence of Islam was dreaded.

Karl Bryullov, “Genseric’s Invasion of Rome” (1833-6), Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia (image via Wikimedia)

Despite the fact that the prophet Muhammad had not yet even been born (and thus Islam had not been founded as a religion), the painting depicts dark skinned Moors dressed as Muslims and attacking rather pale-skinned Romans. On his personal blog, early medieval historian Guy Halsall has pointed out a number of the anachronistic elements in Bryullov’s painting which together point to 19th-century culture clashes and racism — rather than the reality of the fifth century CE or the true ethnic identity of the Vandals. He writes:

Notice that, although Genseric (or Gaiseric as he appears in my own book) is depicted as fairly “White” he is nevertheless shown in very Turkish guise (this, after all, is a painting from Tsarist Russia, old, old enemies of the Ottomans): n.b the helmet. But look, too, at how Gaiseric’s warriors are overwhelmingly “black”.  Not merely “black”, but veiled and black. Now, it is documented that Gaiseric had Mauri (Moors) in his army when he sacked Rome in 455, but leaving aside the difficult issue of whether the Moors were “black” or not, and indeed of whether labels like “black” and “white” are applicable to late antique history, these veiled north African Moors are depicted as Muslims.

Karl Bryullov, “The Last Day of Pompeii” (1830-33), oil on canvas, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia (image via Wikimedia)

As Halsall points to, the term “Moors” derives from the Latin word Mauri. This ethnic label applied first to persons from the Roman region of North Africa referred to as Mauretania in the ancient Maghreb, and then to any North African living beyond the Roman frontiers — from modern-day Libya to the Atlantic Ocean. In remarks to Hyperallergic, Robin Whelan, a historian of Vandal North Africa employed at the University of Liverpool, noted:

Interestingly, the term in the fourth to early fifth century is used for people from the Roman province of Mauretania — and Afri barbari (“African barbarians”) is used for those beyond the frontier by Augustine. It’s in the Vandal period that we start seeing Maurus used specifically of all these different groups seen as in some way (geographically, culturally) outside the empire.

A late Roman mosaic at the British Museum excavated at Bordh-Djedid near Carthage used to be interpreted as one of a small number of illustrations of what Vandal soldiers looked like. As Whelan and others have noted, the dress of the “Vandal” mosaics likely demonstrates a common court costume adopted by Romano-Africans under Vandal rule. But it still is much closer to what a Vandal elite looked like than Bryullov’s painting. Bryullov’s depiction of the sack of the city in 455 CE bore little resemblance to a mostly Gothic and North African group of soldiers looting a late Roman city. Although the Vandals had invaded North Africa in 429 CE, they were more likely dressed in traditional tunics and pants. They certainly did not look like 19th century Ottomans. As Julia Hillner, an early medieval historian at the University of Sheffield, noted in comments to Hyperallergic about Bryullov’s anachronisms supporting Halsall’s original assessment:

These were not just “any” Muslims, but Ottoman looking people, and the rivalry between Russia and Ottoman Turkey is becoming more acute at the time. After all the Crimean War [1853-1856] is only twenty years away from that painting!

A fifth or sixth century CE pavement from from Bordj-Djedid, Tunisia, Africa, now in the British Museum, which used to be thought to depict a Vandal soldier, but is now thought to depict a Romano-African elite wearing Vandal court dress (image via Wikimedia)

Despite this fact, online outlets continue to use the painting to illustrate who the Vandals were. The growing tendency of historians and artists in the 18th and then 19th centuries to view other civilizations through the lens of the late Roman empire caused a great deal of projection and historical anachronism. Norman Etherington, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Western Australia, has written extensively about how designations of ethnic groups in the South African apartheid regime were shaped by knowledge of classical studies. In an article on “Barbarians Ancient and Modern,” he notes:

Nineteenth-century knowledge about the precolonial societies or Southern Africa was generated by methodologies and assumptions now known to be flawed, with many of them reflecting the legacy of classical studies in the West. Major errors stemmed from the application of inappropriate European models to African societies — models that owed much to the heritage of classical learning about Romans and barbarians.

Etherington demonstrates that colonial conquerors had long viewed their own imperialism and the identities of those they conquered through the “distorting prism of Roman history.” Ancient historians themselves also tended to project present historical occurrences onto their interpretation of ancient events. In other words, the projection worked both ways.

In the United States, artists in the 19th century continued the fad of depicting the sacking of Rome in neoclassical ways that spoke to the politics of the present and served as a warning. From 1833–36, English Artist Thomas Cole made five paintings for the New York millionaire Luman Reed showing the lifecycle of a city in his The Course of Empire series. The city depicted was a fiction but based heavily on the life cycles of Athens and Rome. In the center of the paintings in Reed’s house would be a very real fireplace, a cynical spatial statement. The city progressed from “The Savage State” to “The Arcadian or Pastoral State” before indulging in luxury in “The Consummation” and then ultimately suffering “Destruction” and “Desolation.”

Thomas Cole’s 1833 sketch for the arrangement of the series “The Course of Empire” paintings around Luman Reed’s fireplace: “The Savage State,” “The Consummation,” “Destruction,” “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” “Desolation” (image via Wikimedia).

The fourth painting, “Destruction” (1836) with its crumbling bridge, fire, and fleeing people is an aesthetic nod to the sacks of Rome in the fifth century. For Cole, the ancient lifecycle was meant to be a present indictment of President Andrew Jackson and the populist politics of the day. Cole provided an allegorical warning: the wealthy elite had a place in politics above mob rule in democracy. As art critic Robert Hughes would note in his book American Visions, the paintings were a “visual analogue to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Even if historians had continued to question the facile and reductive narrative provided by Gibbon, his book remained attractive to the elite White men feeling anxiety over their empire and fearing entering a downturn in the cycle of civilization.

Other depictions of the sacking of Rome expose a 19th-century colonial obsession with invasions and imperialism viewed through the lens of neoclassical events. One of the best-known portrayals of the sacking of Rome by Alaric and his Visigoths was made by French painter Joseph-Noël Sylvestre in 1890. “Le sac de Rome par les barbares en 410” (The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410), is part of slew of “invasion paintings” of the late 19th century. The theme is embodied in a painting of Attila and the Huns’ invasion of the Roman empire completed by Eugène Delacroix around 1838 to 1847. Sylvestre’s painting is not meant to be veristic, showing as it does naked Visigoths scaling a togate Roman imperial statue. A man in traditional Germanic dress sits on horseback behind the barbarians attempting to topple the Roman statue. Rather than shown with the pants or leggings normally worn by the Germanic raiders, they are depicted as uncivilized, bearded men in the (literally) naked act of taking the city.

In comments to Hyperallergic, Jennifer Sessions, a historian of modern France and Algeria at the University of Virginia, spoke about the symbolism in Sylvestre’s painting. She noted that Sylvestre was very much part of the established art scene at the time Third Republic in France which produced such standard state-message art that they were labelled “L’art pompier” (“Fireman” art).

Representations of barbarian invasion would have had even more specific significance in the context of French nationalism after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, when the uncivilized German hordes had overrun and humiliated France. That defeat raised great concern about the “decadence” of French men, across the political spectrum. For some, it revealed the dangers of over-civilization: the (relatively) barbarian Germans had proved physically stronger and militarily fiercer than French men softened by modern, urban life and the influence of women … Paintings like Sylvestre’s did not offer an accurate representation of the Roman past, but served as vehicles for late nineteenth-century French anxieties about national decadence, the “racial” degeneration of French men, and geopolitical competition in an age of aggressive nationalism.

As per usual, interest surrounding the sacking of Rome and the decline of Roman hegemony were in actuality rooted in modern fears over the current empire.

Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, “Le sac de Rome par les barbares en 410 (The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410)” (1890), oil on canvas, Musée Paul Valéry, Sète, France (image via Wikimedia)

Our 21st-century obsession with the perceived fall of Rome is not all that different from the 19th century one. Even if current ancient and early medieval historians such as Guy Halsall, Dame Averil Cameron, Peter Brown, Christopher Wickham, and Kristina Sessa, have all argued against Gibbon and the narrative of decline, the attractiveness of the facile account of “barbarian hordes” sacking Rome and bringing about the downfall of a civilization persists for everyone from conservative historian Niall Ferguson to Breitbart News. Many conservative outlets still use Rome as a reflexive prism through which to view our own fates — and in the process, they manipulate Roman history to argue against things like open immigration and to buttress support for infrastructure like border walls.

The trope of the United States as Rome is a tired one. For many years after reading former The Atlantic editor Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007), I endeavored to collect the seemingly endless string of articles comparing Rome to America. As was done by European artists and writers in the 18th and then 19th centuries, the decline of the Roman Empire has been seized upon largely by reactionaries? as an oracle for our own fates.

But I am here to say this is a false prophecy. Beyond rejecting the literary metaphor, we must also reject the anachronistic and often inaccurate 19th century visual ones, which depict the the Goths and Vandals as “barbarian” groups. In their place, we can look to contemporary mosaics or to coins produced by these cultures. We might also use this moment as a rallying cry to artists and archaeological illustrators: It is time historians worked more closely with illustrators to depict the sacking of Rome and late Roman “barbarians” more accurately. If we want to change the way modern viewers see the past and steer them away from stereotyping or anachronism, we must give journalists access to freely available historical drawings to replace the old and false visual narratives of Rome’s collapse spread throughout our public domain. Changing the narratives of the 18th and 19th century surrounding the decline and fall of Rome means not only rejecting Gibbon’s theories, but also the anachronistic art that continues to prop them up.

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