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Not Much Happened: 410 and All That*

  • Peter Van Nuffelen (a1)

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Even in these unclassical times, the sack of Rome by the Goths in a.d. 410 remains entrenched in Western collective memory as a ‘key date’ in history. For a scholarly audience, its sixteen-hundreth anniversary in 2010 was commemorated by no fewer than three conferences in Rome. The resulting volumes illustrate the ambivalent relationship historical scholarship entertains with commemoration. While the conferences draw their appeal from the construction, in late ancient and modern tradition, of the sack as an event of world historical importance, the three volumes collectively lead one to conclude that nothing much really happened between 24 and 27 August 410. The schizophrenic situation is summed up in the following two statements by Philipp von Rummel, the organizer of the conference held by the German Archaeological Institute. In an interview with the BBC, he is quoted as saying: ‘I don't know if people will still be talking about 9/11 in 2,000 years time, but the events of that August day still influence our contemporary view of history.’ In the introduction to his volume, co-edited with J. Lipps and C. Machado, he approvingly notes that scholars ‘have moved away from the traditional narrative of collapse with which the sack was associated’ (11), and his own contribution opens by stating that, without lapsing into ‘historical instrumentalization and projections’, one cannot say much more than that an army under the leadership of Alaric plundered the city of Rome for three days (17: ‘Diese drei Sätze geben präzise das wieder, was abseits historischer Instrumentalisierungen und Projektionen über das Ereignis gesagt werden kann’). Even if the two statements need not be contradictory, they convey two rather different views of the events: a hyperbolic one highlighting long-term repercussions and a rather terse one that remains strictly within the bounds of the factual. It is a phenomenon that can be observed elsewhere: critical scholarship seeks to undermine traditional historical narrative, while at the same time failing to escape entirely the story it rejects.

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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement no. 313153.

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Bleckmann, B. 2007: ‘Krisen und Krisenbewältigung: Die Eroberung Roms durch Alarich in der Darstellung Philostorgs’, in Scholten, H. (ed.), Die Wahrnehmung von Krisenphänomenen. Fallbeispiele von der Antike bis in die Neuzeit, Cologne, 97109
Castoriadis, C. 1975: L'Institution imaginaire de la société, Paris
Ghilardi, M., and Pilari, G. (eds) 2010: I Barbari que presero Roma. Il sacco del 410 e le sue consequenze, Rome
Grossi, V., and Ronzani, R. (eds) 2010: Goti, Romani, Christiani e la caduta di Roma del 410. In dialogo con Agostino d'Ippona. In onore di A.V. Nazzaro, Rome
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Lehmann, T. 1998: ‘Zu Alarichs Beutezug in Campanien. Ein neu entdecktes Gedicht des Paulinus Nolanus’, Römische Quartalschrift 92, 181–99
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Meier, M., and Patzold, S. 2010: August 410. Ein Kampf um Rom, Stuttgart (reprinted as paperback 2013)
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Not Much Happened: 410 and All That*

  • Peter Van Nuffelen (a1)

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