The Sack of Rome: A Stoic Letter

This document was provided to me as an alleged translation from a Latin ms. recently discovered in the archives of a remote monastery somewhere in central Europe (I was not told exactly where). The ms. is said to be a copy of a much earlier original. There are a few signs of tampering by later, Christian scribes, such as the dating method, and possibly a few other references that might lead scholars to suspect its authenticity. --Jan Garrett, September 15, 2001.

410 anno domini christianorum

Dear Stoic friends,

I write to you in the aftermath of the sack of Rome by the Goths, or rather, to be more accurate, some Goths, those led by Alaric. In the limited perspective of those who are not making progress, this is an unmitigated disaster for the great Roman imperium. Things, they say, will never be the same as they were before. They are not entirely wrong if we qualify that statement with "in this cosmic cycle."

You may have heard that the advance guard of the Goths destroyed the twin pillars, those phallus-like symbols of Roman world-domination. It is true. They are gone. It is also true that many lives were lost in the destruction of the pillars. As you might expect, the emotional responses in Rome and environs of those who have not been exposed to philosophy have been extreme and most violent, from grief and despair to anger and hatred, often leading to actions directed at targets that have done nothing to provoke them.

Some are saying that the gods have abandoned Rome. Some Christiani are saying that it only proves that the gods of the Romans, Jupiter included, were demonic powers and not all that strong in any case. But it has been clear to us for some time that Jupiter was never a special friend of the Roman imperium. Our imperium is the world-city, in which all human beings are potential citizens, though only the wise are fully so.

Lines of communication have been significantly disrupted as the result of these dispreferred events. If it be the will of Jupiter, however, this message will reach you. I write to you to encourage you to remember and live out what this school of philosophers has taught you. The days ahead may be trying, but then we Stoici are accustomed to that.

Our primary loyalty is not to an imperium which is lost. It is not to the arrogance of former emperors or the foolishness of present ones. It is to virtue and to justice to all our fellow travelers in this terrestrial journey.

It will further degrade our fellow citizens if they take out their frustrations on Goths who happen to be their neighbors. The Gothic peoples have long been migrating into Italy and many have settled here. They are for the most part as law-abiding as their Roman neighbors, whether Christiani or pagan. (This is not to say that they are sages or saints, any more than most Romans.) Violence and injustice directed against families and individuals among them is contrary to the most basic sense of appropriate action.

Nor is there any reason that we should stand by silently if Arian Christiani are blamed for the destruction in Rome that was done by Alaric's Goths. It is true that most Goths are Arians [theological followers of Arius, the 4th century Christian elder who resisted the attempt by Athanasius, ultimately victorious in the Catholic Church, to make Jesus Christ a part of the Godhead coequal with God the Father--the Arians were non-Trinitarian Christians--J.G.]. But most Arians had nothing to do with Alaric. Pagans and non-Arian Christiani would violate elementary justice to mistreat and harass Arian Christiani just because of their religious beliefs.

We Stoici recognize a universal law in the Universe, and in reflection of that a general standard of conduct for our actions here below. That is, it is unjust in terrestrial terms to punish persons for actions done by others in which they had no part. Religious similarity is no justification for persecution, any more than the fact of a common descent from a specific people or tribe.

Stoics who live close to Rome and other places where Alaric's Goths have worked their destruction to life, possessions, comfort, etc., what we properly name preferred values, will recognize their appropriate actions. This has never been peculiarly difficult for us, for normally our stations in life and society determine our appropriate actions. If our neighbors are suffering under avoidable pain or are injured in a way that can be addressed through medical arts and techniques and we can help, we will surely do so. If human lives can be saved through our assistance in clearing the rubble and we are able to help without violating even more pressing duties, we will surely assist in this and not shirk our functions as parts of our political communities.

We will not endorse the judgments, however, that give rise to the violent feelings of our neighbors. By such judgments, they only mire themselves deeper in their own misery and distress. We do others no favor by encouraging these feelings. We do others no service by endorsing revenge in the place of justice.