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Sack Races

Tomorrow, September 3, is the feast of St. Gregory the Great. We’ll post plenty on him, of course. But first it would be good to get to know the “barbarians,” whom he took care to convert to Catholic Christianity.

Modern readers often misunderstand the term “barbarian.” They imagine an unruly horde of hairy guys, all wearing skins and holding spears, and occasionally grunting. But, to the ancients, the word denoted the peoples who lived beyond the empire’s borders. They were the tribes that were non-Roman and that resisted assimilation into the Roman world. Their civilizations developed along different, non-Roman lines. Some tribes were pagan; others were Christian. But those that were Christian were solidly in the camp of the Arian heretics.

As Rome weakened, the barbarians shifted from defensive fighting to offensive, and from the late fourth through the fifth century various tribes advanced on the city: Gauls, Visigoth, and Vandals all succeeded in sacking Rome. In 476 the last Roman emperor was toppled, and the German chief Odovacer ruled Italy as king.

Adrian Murdoch, who blogs at Bread and Circuses, has chronicled those Roman-barbarian encounters in a number of popular books. Earlier this week, he linked to evidence of “civic continuity” in Rome after the barbarian victory. The barbarians, it seems, paid handsome sums for the upkeep of public buildings. So it’s quite possible that, for the average plebs in the street, the “Fall of Rome” wasn’t all that catastrophic.

What lessons can we learn from all that history? I’m glad you asked.

Mr. Murdoch is a business journalist as well as a scholar of ancient history. (Stateside, his work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal.) For all of us who have gotten nowhere on the professional secrets of Sun Tzu and Attila the Hun, he’s amassed a treasury of business lessons from all the barbarian tribes. He’s summarized it tidily in a very entertaining essay, and the advice seems sound enough (though this non-millionaire is hardly a qualified judge). It’s in PDF format, as images of the original newspaper pages.

Get to know the tribes, then, and call me when you’ve made your first million. We’ll search out some lessons from antiquity on spending fortunes wisely.

Pope St. Gregory must have learned his lessons well. He was able to keep the fierce Lombards at a distance by buying them off. And he found gentle ways to win many of the barbarian tribes over to the Church. Stay tuned for more on this guy.