24 Aug: the spirits of the dead walked the streets of ancient Rome

This is an interesting day in ancient history.

The Romans, by which I mean ancients and also Catholics of the Roman Church, call this day ante diem ix kalendas septembres.  

On this day in ancient Rome there were rites in honor of Luna at the Graecostasis mundus patet.  In this case the mundus was a ritual pit which had a vaulted cover. Three times a year the Romans removed this cover (24 August, 5 October, 8 November).  This is when the gates of the underworld were considered open and the manes (spirits of the dead) walked the streets of Rome.

In A.D. 72 St. Bartholomew was martyred perhaps at Albanopolis

In A.D. 79 the volcano Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae

In A.D. 410 Rome was sacked by Alaric, sparking a crisis of culture and identity for the Romans and leading St. Augustine to write The City of God.

What a difference a day makes.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. danphunter1 says:

    I wonder if Alaric ever had the chance to meet His Excellency the bishop of Carthage?
    And I wonder if he converted? The Vandal, that is.
    God bless you.

  2. danphunter1 says:

    The bishop of Hippo.

  3. Romulus says:

    Dan, I thought it was the Vandals, not the Goths, who came to N. Africa.

  4. danphunter1 says:

    My mistake. I thought Alaric was a Vandal.

  5. Boko Fittleworth says:

    Reminds me of that old SNL skit when Steve Martin was the guest host: “Centurion! Centurion! The Vandals have toilet-papered the camp!”

  6. Stephen says:

    “Sacked” is a bit strong, don’t you think? “Occupied” might be a more accurate term,no? It’s not like Alaric was a stranger to the Romans, and he didn’t rape, pillage or plunder, which is more along the order of sacking a city. Like what Ghenghis Khan would do.

  7. Jon says:

    I knew I should’ve stayed in bed this morning!

  8. Jordan Potter says:

    Dan said: I thought Alaric was a Vandal.

    You were probably thinking of Gaiseric or Genseric, King of the Vandals, who also sacked Rome.

    Stephen said: It’s not like Alaric was a stranger to the Romans, and he didn’t rape, pillage or plunder, which is more along the order of sacking a city.

    Traditionally it’s been called the Sack of Rome, not the Visigothic Occupation of Rome: and they did do some pillaging and plundering.

  9. Jordan Potter says:

    Here’s how one website describes Alaric’s Sack of Rome:


    The Visigoths were also pretty famished after camping for more than eighteen months in what later became the Villa Borghese Park, so they only pillaged for three days before they left in search of food. During the sack, most unresisting persons were spared from the sword. Many were nominally enslaved, but the selling price of slaves plunged so low that most quickly bought themselves and friends out of servitude: the Visigoths wanted whatever cash they could realize and certainly had no desire to own a multitude of pretty useless city people as slaves. A few important persons, notably the beautiful young Galla Placida, a daughter of Theodosius who had been raised in Stilicho’s household, were kept as hostages. All accounts agree that rape was not on the menu — they were all Christians, after all [well, not exactly, but the Visigoths, who were Arian heretics, thought they were Christians at least]. Public buildings were burned, but, by and large, houses and churches were spared. Secular artwork was damaged or hauled off, but early sacred art survived — it was mostly in the catacombs and churches. No matter: it was almost all destroyed later or painted over in new styles.

    The sack, although short-lived, had a profound effect on Rome. There was no food in the city, and a chaotic situation prevailed. The Roman slave economy had also finally collapsed, because almost any slave could afford freedom in the glutted and depressed slave market. Roman population numbers, already reduced since the departure of the government apparatus with Constantine ninety years earlier, again fell precipitously as droves of Romans quickly dispersed into the hills and countryside.

  10. Stephen says:

    It was no picnic, but still it was pretty mild compared to what passed for sacking in those days. What Rome did to Carthage was a “sack”. The Mongol hordes hundreds of years later also “sacked”. The “sack of Rome” was more emotional and cultural, as Alaric himself was a former “soldier for hire” for Rome, as were all those troops. So they weren’t strangers.

  11. Jordan Potter says:

    Yes, apart from the burning of buildings, the looting, the killing, and enslavement, it was a mild sacking. Henceforth let all scholars of Roman history refer to Alaric’s Comparatively Mild Sacking of Rome.

    Okay, I’m having a bit of fun here. You’re right that as sackings go it wasn’t as bad as most. Psychologically, emotional, and culturally, though, it made a serious impact on Rome and the Empire, and rightly was remembered as one of the pivotal moments or milestones in Western civilisation.

  12. Jordan Potter says:

    By the way, what Rome did to Carthage was much more than a simple “sacking”: Carthage was completely demolished and salt was sowed there to prevent anything from growing there.

  13. Stephen says:

    Roman fastidiousness. Let’s say the Romans at Carthage defined one end of the boundary within which we can use sacking, and Alaric (Gothic sloppiness or mercy?) the other end. Yes, it was a low point for Rome, but the Empire endured.

  14. Publius says:

    I have always loved Livy’s description of the sack of Rome by the Gauls 800 years before Alaric. Way to go, Papirius!

    “After all the arrangements that circumstances permitted had been made for the defence of the Capitol, the old men returned to their respective homes and, fully prepared to die, awaited the coming of the enemy. Those who had filled curule offices resolved to meet their fate wearing the insignia of their former rank and honour and distinctions. They put on the splendid dress which they wore when conducting the chariots of the gods or riding in triumph through the City, and thus arrayed, they seated themselves in their ivory chairs in front of their houses. Some writers record that, led by M. Fabius, the Pontifex Maximus, they recited the solemn formula in which they devoted themselves to death for their country and the Quirites.

    “As the Gauls were refreshed by a night’s rest after a battle which had at no point been seriously contested, and as they were not now taking the City by assault or storm, their entrance the next day was not marked by any signs of excitement or anger. Passing the Colline gate, which was standing open, they came to the Forum and gazed round at the temples and at the Citadel, which alone wore any appearance of war. They left there a small body to guard against any attack from the Citadel or Capitol whilst they were scattered, and then they dispersed in quest of plunder through streets in which they did not meet a soul. Some poured in a body into all the houses near, others made for the most distant ones, expecting to find them untouched and full of spoils. Appalled by the very desolation of the place and dreading lest some stratagem should surprise the stragglers, they returned to the neighbourhood of the Forum in close order. The houses of the plebeians were barricaded, the halls of the patricians stood open, but they felt greater hesitation about entering the open houses than those which were closed. They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in the porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances, wearing the very aspect of gods. So they stood, gazing at them as if they were statues, till, as it is asserted, one of the patricians, M. Papirius, roused the passion of a Gaul, who began to stroke his beard–which in those days was universally worn long–by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed, the others were butchered in their chairs. After this slaughter of the magnates, no living being was thenceforth spared; the houses were rifled, and then set on fire.”

  15. Jordan Potter says:

    Stephen said: Yes, it was a low point for Rome, but the Empire endured.

    In the East anyway. In the West it suffered total collapse, with a comparatively shortlived paste-up job under Justinian.

    Alaric’s sack was an important milestone in the collapse of the Empire in the West.

Comments are closed.