In the late summer of 408 AD, a barbarian army under the command of Alaric, king of the Visigoths, set out on a leisurely march across the Italian countryside towards the city of Rome… so that he could burn it to the ground.
Alaric had been promised money by the Roman government in exchange for a military alliance between Rome and the Visigoths; but just before the money was supposed to have been paid, the Romans canceled the deal.
Talk about a bonehead move.
Alaric was a decorated warrior at the head of a powerful army. And the Western Roman Empire, by comparison, was barely even functional anymore. The government was bankrupt, the currency was a joke, the economy was in the dumps, the military was weak, the borders were nonexistent… and there was no sense of unity in Roman society.
So it clearly made no sense to turn Alaric into an enemy. But then again, the emperor in the west was a weak, incompetent stooge named Honorius, whose legacy is so horrendous that he consistently ranks among the worst emperors in Roman history. And there’s some pretty stiff competition on that list.
Alaric, to his credit, actually tried to avoid conflict with the Romans and work out a resolution. But Honorius refused to negotiate… so Alaric gathered his troops and marched towards Rome.
Now, at that point in history, the city of Rome itself wasn’t even the capital of the western empire anymore; it had been moved to Milan, and then to Ravenna. But Rome was still among the largest and most prominent cities in the world, even in the early fifth century. And Alaric knew that sacking it would send shockwaves across the empire.
Alaric and his barbarian army were practically unopposed on their way to Rome; according to the ancient historian Zosimus, in fact, their march was so leisurely it was as if they were “at some festival” rather than heading to war.
They arrived in the fall of 408 AD and encircled the city, cutting it off from any resupply… meaning it would only be a matter of time before residents all starved to death and the Visigoths plundered the city.
The destruction of Rome was an unthinkable cataclysm. And so, with the barbarians literally at the gates, Honorius finally agreed to negotiate a deal. And it was a costly one– many times more expensive than their original agreement.
That should have been the end of the story… and yet Honorius found a way to screw it all up again.
Early the following year in 409 AD, Honorius tried to double-cross Alaric by sending troops to ambush the Visigoths. The attack failed, and Alaric was infuriated by this violation of their treaty.
Again, to his credit, Alaric tried to negotiate a peaceful solution, and he asked for lands, titles, and tribute as compensation.
But Honorius– who at that point was a highly experienced diplomat– instead sent an insulting letter back to Alaric. Talks quickly broke down, and Alaric turned back towards Rome in late 409.
Once again– and only after the barbarians were at the gate– the government finally agreed to Alaric’s demands… and the destruction of Rome was narrowly avoided for a second time.
Yet then Honorius managed to screw it up for the third time in a row.
The following year, in 410 AD, Alaric and Honorius were set to meet near the capital city of Ravenna to discuss peace and cooperation.
But Alaric and his men were ambushed just prior to the meeting by Roman troops. He survived. And, completely fed up with Honorius, Alaric took his troops back to Rome for the third (and final) time in two years.
The Visigoths entered the city on August 24, 410 AD through Rome’s Salarian Gate, about 3 kilometers north of the Colosseum.
Alaric and his men spent three full days sacking the city. Almost everything of value was stolen or destroyed. Cultural treasures were defaced, monuments were ripped down, buildings were burned to the ground, and the city’s residents were killed or enslaved.
It was difficult to not think of this story when news broke about the debt ceiling ‘resolution’ late last week, because the two situations share many parallels.
The sack of Rome in 410 AD was a crisis of their own making. Decades of terrible strategic and financial decisions had reduced Rome to a shell of its former greatness, weakening the western empire considerably. Their enemies noticed.
The United States is in a similar position; decades of terrible decisions have led to a $31+ trillion national debt that grows by leaps and bounds every single year. Through its completely irresponsible addiction to spending, the government has weakened the country considerably… and America’s adversaries have noticed.
In the early 400s, Rome was led by a complete buffoon who, despite all of his years in government service, engineered a crisis by refusing to negotiate or to take an obvious risk seriously… only to ultimately cave and narrowly avoid an earth-shattering catastrophe.
This is a clear similarity to the debt ceiling fiasco that we saw play out over the last few months. The risk was obvious… and yet the guy who shakes hands with thin air refused to negotiate until the last minute, just barely averting disaster.
Waiting until the last minute to just barely avoid a major catastrophe is not a viable problem solving strategy. Neither is kicking the can down the road.
Yet every few years the debt ceiling becomes a major crisis. They consistently wait until the last minute, hastily negotiate a short-term patch, and kick the can down the road for another few years while they take the country even deeper into debt, until the whole cycle begins anew.
The Romans tried to do the same thing with the Visigoths: negotiate a terrible, last minute solution. Make the problem worse. Repeat.
This approach didn’t work in the early 400s, and it won’t work today. As the sack of Rome demonstrated, when you’re constantly taking things to the brink of disaster, eventually someone is going to go too far.
A worldwide financial meltdown triggered by the United States defaulting on its debt was very narrowly avoided. This time. Who’s to say that when this comes up again in 2025 that some idiot politician won’t take things too far?
The really ridiculous thing about the debt ceiling crisis was that it shows the inability of the US government to negotiate responsibly… with itself! This was literally a case of American politicians trying to resolve their differences with other American politicians.
How is this going to work out when the people on the other side of the table aren’t from another US political party… but from the Chinese Communist Party?
It’s worth thinking about given how the specter of conflict continues rising; just over the weekend, a Chinese naval vessel intentionally maneuvered to within 150 meters of US and Canadian ships in the Taiwan Strait. And this was just one of many obvious escalations in recent months.
The last point worth mentioning is that the sack of Rome illustrates how dangerous complacency can be.
When Alaric showed up in 408 AD for the first time, the city’s destruction was avoided. When he showed up the second time in 409 AD, the city’s destruction was avoided again.
So you can probably imagine that when Alaric and his barbarian army were on the way to Rome for the third time in 410 AD, the city’s residents probably felt confident that their leaders would once again figure out a last minute solution.
That misplaced confidence in their incompetent leaders cost Romans dearly.
It’s worth remembering that you don’t have to bet everything you’ve worked to achieve on today’s pitiful leadership; there are plenty of steps you can take to reduce your exposure to the risks that they’ve created (and continue to ignore).
You can, for example, hold a portion of your savings in an alternative asset like gold, which has a 5,000 year history of holding its value, especially in times of crisis.
You can set up more robust structures to help you save for retirement… which makes a lot of sense given the looming insolvency of Social Security’s major trust funds.
And you can even establish legal residency or citizenship in a foreign country, giving you a place to go in the event that you ever need to leave.
Some of these options take time to establish. And you don’t want to make the same historical mistake of waiting until the last minute– just before a crisis– to start taking action.