The Roman Empire was crumbling into ruins. Invasion succeeded invasion, defeat followed defeat. In 378 the German people known as Visigoths overwhelmed an imperial army at Adrianople; and in 408 they invaded Italy and marched south upon Rome under their leader Alaric, a nobleman by birth who had once commanded the Gothic troops in the Roman army. When the Visigoths first appeared before the Aurelian walls, which had recently been strengthened and raised to almost twice their original height, they were kept at bay with payments of monies. But in 410 when they reappeared, the gates were opened by traitors within the city, and for the first time in eight hundred years a foreign force occupied Rome. A ferocious sack had been expected when the fearful sound of the Gothic war trumpets had been heard; but the tall, rough-looking troops of Alaric, mostly Arian Chistians like their commander, were not malevolent. Some buildings were burned down, including the Palace of Sallust, many houses and churches were plundered, a few citizens were roughly treated, and pagan temples were ransacked with exceptional venom.
But after three days the, the Visigoths withdrew, having respected the sanctity both of St Peter’s and of St Paul’s. Yes, while the fabric of the city had not been badly damaged, the people of Rome had suffered a deep emotional shock. ‘It is the end of the world’ lamented St Jerome, as Christians blamed pagans for their humiliation and disgrace, and pagans blamed Christians for having deserted the gods who had in the past afforded the city protection. ‘Words fail me. My sobs break in … The city which took captive the whole world has itself been captured’.
Confidence soon returned, however. The Pope at the times of Alaric’s invasion was Innocent I, a man of strong will and high ability who at every opportunity stressed the supreme authority of the papacy and its importance as a political and spiritual force. And in 440 a man of like determination, energy and force of character was elected Pope. This was the Roman born Leo I who insisted that the powers which he had inherited had come to him through his predecessors directly from St Peter and that Peter alone had been granted this power by Jesus Christ.
Fortified by the faith, pope Leo went out himself when Rome was next endangered to confront the barbarians in the north. The enemy now was the restless, savage tempered Attila, the squat and the swarthy leader of the Huns, who ‘felt himself lord of all’ and took pride in the title that had been bestowed upon him the ‘Scourge of God’. In 452 Attila’s forces crossed the alps and, having sacked and pillaged various northern towns including Milan, Padua and Verona, were preparing to advance south when Pope Leo arrived at his headquarters. He demanded and obtained a meeting with Attila ‘il flagello di Dio’ and, while no one knew what passed between them, the Huns soon withdrew, persuaded perhaps that famine and pestilence in Italy would destroy them should they move towards Rome.
A few years later pope Leo was faced with another threat, this time from the Vandals, fierce Germanic Warriors who attacked by night, blackening their faces and their shields. In 455, having poured across Spain and ravaged north Africa, they invaded Italy and, led by their gifted chieftain, Gaiseric, they advanced upon Rome. Leo could not prevent them breaking into the city which they pillaged far more thoroughly than Alaric’s men had done. They remained for two weeks during which they stripped most of the gilded tiles from the roof of the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, rampaged through the mansions of the rich, invaded the Christian churches, and then marched down to their ships at Ostia with thousands of captives and wagons piled high with plunder, including the menorah and other sacred objects which the Emperor Titus had brought to Rome from Jerusalem.
Yet brutal and rapacious as the Vandals had proved to be, the damage they did to Rome was not as widespread as it would have been had not Pope Leo interceded so forcefully for the city and obtained undertakings from Gaiseric to restrain his men from murder, rape and indiscriminate incendiarism. Gaiseric did not keep all his promises, but at least the ancient basilicas were spared; and life in Rome was soon restored to normal. Indeed, in the years that had passed since the first barbarian incursion into the city, the moral force of the Christian faith had grown ever stronger. The Church was still rich, and the papacy had become recognized as a decisive factor in European affairs. In the proud words of Pope Leo, Rome was once more ‘the head of the world through the Holy See of St Peter’.