Last month we were on an organized tour of Santi Quattro Coronati, an old church about a half kilometer north of the Coliseum. Our tour was in English, but the nun from the Augustinian Monastery at the church spoke only Italian. The nun was describing one of the rooms to our tour guide (in Italian) and mentioned that there used to be a beautiful tile floor in this room. We were standing on a floor made of unfinished wooden boards. She said that the floor had been destroyed by Robert Guiscard in 1084. She seemed very disappointed that she could not show us her tile floor.
Robert Guiscard was the leader of the Normans who invaded Rome in 1084. After they conquered the city, they made it their task to wantonly destroy the city.
Prior to this, there had been many other invasions of Rome by barbarians. Visigoths, under the command of Alaric, fell on and sacked Rome in 410. The city was devastated once again in 455 by Genseric and the Vandals. Odoacer deposed the Roman King in 476. Theodoric and his Ostrogoths conquered Rome in 493. Saracen Arabs sacked Rome in 846. Mutinous troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. For four months, they pillaged, raped, stole chalices and reliquaries, and hung people by their ankles from the bridge threatening to cut the rope if they didn’t deliver their family treasures. Two thirds of the buildings in Rome were destroyed. Barbarian armies were more compassionate.
After the first few waves of barbarian invasions, the population of Rome was no longer Romans and Etruscans. Many other peoples populated Rome and had assimilated into the society. In 546 AD, some Goth soldiers serving in the Roman Army opened Porta Asinaria to the army of Totila, the King of the Goths. Totila had captured most of present day Italy and only Rome was not under his control. Totila had Rome surrounded and under a starvation siege for about a year. He threatened to leave Rome like a pasture. Then some of his supporters opened Porta Asinaria. The Goth army proceeded to mercilessly loot the city.
Why did they do that? Why did barbarian armies destroy art treasures and historic monuments? There was no military advantage in such destruction. When we search for information on the barbarian invasions, we find descriptions of military campaigns on the Italian peninsula, but we don’t find information from the point of view of the Romans. From the point of view of the student or tourist today, we wish that more would have survived.