Feb 3, 2010
Our book, AD410 The Year That Shook Rome, will be published by the British Museum Press in March 2010. It celebrates (if that’s the right word) a hotly debated event, whose 1600th anniversary is being marked this year: the sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths.
In the week which sees the launch of the British Museum’s excellent series for BBC Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects, it’s salutary to remember that objects and artefacts, while contributing so much to our knowledge of antiquity, call tell only part of the story.
If our book succeeds at all, it will be in good part down to the different backgrounds from which Sam and I approached the subject. Sam’s background is principally that of an archaeologist and numismatist (at the British Museum), while I am a classicist with a fair experience of translating, adapting and staging ancient Greek drama. Together, then, we bring to the story not only a rigorously scholarly approach, but – as importantly – an understanding of the human dimension.
This has led to some interesting reassessments of characters and their behaviour. For example, 1600 years ago today, the western Roman world was being officially ruled from Ravenna by its emperor, the young, weak, poultry-loving Honorius. But there were two rival emperors. One, Constantine III had been proclaimed in Britain and was now effectively ruling much of Gaul. The other, Priscus Attalus, ruled Rome.
Now, historians on the whole have discounted Priscus Attalus as a puppet of Alaric, put in place by the Goths in an attempt to push through their demands for a homeland. But, when we looked closer, we found an altogether more complex situation. Yes, Alaric had forced the Roman Senate to raise Attalus ‘to the purple’, but Attalus was no patsy. Instead, he almost immediately opposed Alaric at every turn, and we can see that he had his own very specific agenda.
It was nothing less than to reunite the Roman empire (which had been divided East and West) – and possibly, though this is more controversial, to reintroduce pagan worship to a world which for only 18 years had been officially Christian. That was partly why the Senate were so keen on him. Until he became emperor, Attalus was a pagan – and so, crucially, were many of the Senate. He had gone along with Alaric when he needed his support, but once he got what he wanted (a stab at being emperor) he was more than happy to hang him out to dry.
People like Attalus make the story of AD410 compelling and modern. And there are many more of them, whom we’ll meet as the year goes on and the story comes into sharper focus…