The story of the first sack of Rome is steeped in myth and legend, but it most likely began when the young city became embroiled in a conflict with a band of Gallic Celts led by the warlord Brennus. On July 18, 387 B.C., the two sides met in battle along the banks of the River Allia. The Romans had yet to perfect the fighting style that would make their legions famous, and many of their men scattered at the first charge of the wild-haired, bare-chested Gallic army. The rest were butchered, leaving Brennus with a clear road to Rome. His men entered the city a few days later and commenced with an orgy of rape and pillage. Buildings were burned or plundered of all their valuables, and most of the Roman senate was put to the sword at the Forum.
While the Gauls wreaked havoc on the rest of the city, the surviving Romans fortified themselves atop the Capitoline Hill. They repelled several Gallic attacks, but after several months of siege, they agreed to pay 1,000 pounds of gold in exchange for Brennus and his army leaving the city. Legend has it that Brennus used rigged scales to weigh out the ransom. When the Romans complained, he threw his sword on the scales and cried out “Vae Victis!” (“Woe to the Vanquished!”). The Romans rebuilt after the Gauls departed, but the defeat at the River Allia left deep wounds. For the rest of Roman history, July 18 was considered a cursed day.
Rome recovered from the Gallic debacle and went on to flourish for nearly 800 years, but its second sacking in A.D. 410 marked the beginning of a long and excruciating fall. At the time, the Roman Empire was divided and on the decline. Marauding Germanic tribes had begun making incursions across the Rhine and Danube, and one of them, a group of Visigoths led by a king named Alaric, had already besieged Rome on two separate occasions. When the barbarians returned for a third siege, a group of rebellious slaves opened the Salarian Gate and allowed them to pour into the city. Alaric and his hordes proceeded to burn buildings, murder aristocrats and steal anything that wasn’t nailed down. Three days later, having stripped the city of all its valuables, they withdrew from Rome and disappeared along the Appian Way.
The Visigoth sacking had been relatively controlled. Many of Rome’s most famous monuments and buildings were left untouched, and since the Goths were Christians, they allowed people to take refuge inside the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul. Nevertheless, news that the Eternal City had fallen sent shockwaves across the Mediterranean. “My voice sticks in my throat, and, as I dictate, sobs choke me,” wrote the Christian St. Jerome. “The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”
Use of the word “vandalism” to describe the wanton destruction of public property owes it origins to the Vandals, a Germanic tribal people who carried out a famous sack of Rome. The raid was triggered by the assassination of the Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who had previously pledged his daughter Eudocia to the son of the Vandal King Genseric as part of a peace treaty. Claiming the deal was invalidated by the Emperor’s death, Genseric invaded Italy and marched on Rome in 455. The Romans were powerless to stop his advancing army, so they sent Pope Leo to negotiate. The pontiff persuaded Genseric not to burn the city or murder its inhabitants, and in exchange, the Vandals were allowed to pass through the gates of Rome without a fight.
Genseric and his band spent the next two weeks gathering up all the booty they could carry. They looted the city’s patrician homes of gold, silver and furniture, and even ransacked the imperial palace and the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. True to their word—if not their name—they refrained from destroying buildings or killing anyone, but they did claim a few prisoners. Chief among them was Valentinian’s daughter, Princess Eudocia, who was later married to Genseric’s son in accordance with their earlier agreement.
After the ousting of the last Western Emperor in A.D. 476, Rome was ruled by a series of Germanic and Ostrogoth kings. The Eastern Emperor Justinian succeeded in recapturing the region during the sixth century, but the Ostrogoth resistance later returned courtesy of Totila, a magnetic leader who rallied the Goths under his banner and laid siege to Rome. According to the historian Procopius, Totila and his men gained access to the city in 546 by scaling its walls under cover of darkness and opening the Asinarian Gate. Rome’s small garrison immediately fled in terror, leaving it defenseless and open to plunder.
The Ostrogoths spent several highly profitable weeks sacking the city, but despite having previously vowed to turn Rome into a sheep pasture, Totila avoided demolishing it when he departed in early 547. Even with most it buildings still standing, the once-great metropolis was rendered a barren ruin. It had boasted more than a million inhabitants during the glory days of the Empire, but by the time the Goths finally left, its population had dwindled to only a few hundred.
Only a few years after his countryman William the Conqueror launched his 1066 invasion of England, the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard carried out a grisly sack of Rome. Guiscard—a name meaning “cunning” or “wily”—marched on the city in 1084 after receiving a plea for aid from his ally Pope Gregory VII, who was under siege by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Guiscard easily captured the city and rescued the Pope, but his soldiers were greeted as enemies by the Roman citizenry, many of whom had thrown their support behind Henry. When the people rose up against him, Guiscard crushed their revolt and allowed his men to indulge their lust for rape and plunder. Fires broke out across the city, and many of its inhabitants were butchered or sold into slavery. Sources differ on just how destructive the three-day rampage really was, but some historians would later blame Guiscard and his Normans for demolishing many of Rome’s most priceless ancient monuments.
The Holy Roman Empire
“They wept a lot; all of us are rich.” That was how one of the participants summed up the events of May 1527, when a mutinous army under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V savaged the city of Rome. The imperial troops were fresh off a campaign against the League of Cognac—with whom Pope Clement VII was allied—but they hadn’t been paid in months. To keep them on the march, their commander, the Duke of Bourbon, had promised them a chance to plunder Rome. The impoverished soldiers arrived on May 6 and launched an assault. The Duke was killed during the fighting, but his men breached the defensive walls and poured into the city. The Vatican’s Swiss Guard was all but annihilated during a famous last stand near St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Clement, meanwhile, was forced to escape via a secret tunnel and barricade himself in the impregnable Castel Sant’Angelo.
Once inside Rome, the leaderless army devolved in a bloodthirsty mob. Buildings were looted and burned; men and children were tortured and killed; and women—even Catholic nuns—were raped or auctioned off at public markets. By the time the imperial army finally left the city, Rome was stripped bare and half of its 55,000 inhabitants were either dead or homeless. The cultural blow was equally severe. Scores of artists had been killed, and many priceless artworks were destroyed or missing. Some scholars have since used the 1527 sacking as the official end date of the Italian Renaissance.