Although it lingered another sixty years, the Sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in 410 marked the downfall of the empire. Gustav Niebuhr, writing in the Washington Post, finds hope in the fact that the Christian religion survived the destruction of its first state sponsor. That, says Niebuhr, shows why Americans should allow the Ground Zero Islamic Center to proceed:

The empire, since the conversion of Emperor Constantine nearly a century earlier, had gradually been bringing its official might to bear in support of Christianity, the very faith its rulers once persecuted. The old, pagan religions suffered greatly. And then, in 410, that remarkable Roman state suffered a mortal wound. At the time, Christians expressed enormous fear for the future.

But their faith would not only survive, but also grow, vastly (well before subsequent European states emerged again to support it).

Is there evidence here for the benefit of keeping religion separate from government power—for the good of both—so that neither meddles in the other’s affairs, such that no religionist tells a political leader what to say, and no political leader tells religionists where they might and might not build their houses of worship? One might so argue.

Bringing up the Sack of Rome in the context of the attack on the World Trade Center is not a reassuring argument. After all, that is what barbarians do when they sack imperial capitals: they destroy important symbols of power. Alaric’s men did not rape and murder and random, but desecrated public buildings and imperial mausoleums in particular.

A more interesting question is: why did a small number of barbarian invaders bring down the densely-populated Roman Empire? As Brian Ward-Perkins reports in his superb book on the Fall of Rome, “A large Germanic group probably numbered a few tens of thousands, while regions like Italy and Roman Africa had populations of several millions,” supporting a standing army of 600,000 during the 4th century.

But Rome was a slave empire. A contemporary source reported that when Alaric besieged the city,  ”Almost all the slaves who were in Rome, poured out of the city to join the barbarians.”

Ward-Perkins adds, “Even as early as 376-8 discontents and fortune-seekers were swelling Gothic ranks soon after they had crossed into the empire - the historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that their numbers were increased significantly, not only by fleeing Gothic slaves, but also by miners escaping the harsh conditions of the state’s gold mines and by people oppressed by the burden of imperial taxation.”

Rome, in short, was a state very similar to what Hitler would have built had he conquered Europe: incorporate some nations into the empire (e.g., Northern Europeans), enslave others, and exterminate yet others. The Gothic invasion by itself would not have brought Rome down without the slave revolt that it helped to trigger.

I am very glad that Christianity survived the Fall of Rome. But the lesson to be drawn from the 1600th anniversary of the Sack of 410 C.E. is that predatory empires premised on conquest will get what they deserve. And that thought makes me consider the proposed monument to Muslim triumphalism in a different light.