AD410, The Year That Shook Rome

184 pages, 88 colour illustrations

ISBN 978 0 7141 2269 4 PB £9.99

Published in March 2010 to mark the 1600th anniversary of Alaric the Goth’s sack of Rome (August AD410), this was the first collaboration between David and The British Museum’s Sam Moorhead (Archaeologist of the Year, 2011). 

A narrative history, the book tells the story of the events which led up to the disastrous sack and of the people involved. With a memorable cast of characters - from the ruthless general Stilicho, to the weak, hen-fancying emperor Honorius,  and the cool and clever princess Galla Placidia - it is a story of humanity on the brink of disaster with resonances for our own time, all set against the vivid backdrop of the ‘eternal city’, Rome. It was a city in transition: a once pagan capital transforming itself into the new centre of Christianity. So, although it still kept its ancient, noisy, chaotic character, it was a city in flux:

  1. By now the effects of Christianity could be felt everywhere in Rome, but it was yet to change the landscape significantly. True, a concerted building programme in the late fourth century had resulted in a flurry of great basilicas, which housed the shrines of saintly relics, like St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s outside the city walls. But the ancient temples, some dating back many centuries to the emperors Hadrian and Augustus and beyond, still stood, even though many were already falling into disrepair, now that public money had been diverted from their upkeep. It is clear... that many of these temples were still admired for their size and architecture - museum pieces in a new age.

Against this backdrop, the story plays out. Increasingly porous borders could no longer resist the pressure of countless thousands of Germanic tribespeople who poured across the Danube and Rhine. Stultifyingly unimaginative bureaucrats failed to appreciate the possibilities they offered or the threats they posed. Myopically ambitious politicians ignored the bigger picture and sought only their own promotion. It was a recipe for disaster.  Yet time and again the situation might have been saved. AD410, The Year That Shook Rome tells the story as it unfolded and considers the heritage which these world-shaking events left behind. 

Reviews and Comments

The book quickly garnered positive reviews.  By the end of the year, it had been chosen as one of the Daily Telegraph’s ‘top read’ history books of 2010, while Current Archaeology identified it as one of the year’s ‘must reads’. Reviews included:

  1. AD410 tells the story with splendid set pieces, lovely pictures and excellent maps ... in this exciting, but also complex, personality-packed tale. (BBC History Magazine)

  2. a highly recommended and accessible book (Minerva)

  3. a thoroughly enjoyable work of popular narrative history, it can be strongly recommended (Current Archaeology)

  4. a lively, read-on account (Church Times)

  5. My favorite feature of AD 410 is the writing. Picking a chapter at random, you can get a sense for the clear style of a story-teller. The authors ... are particularly skilled at breathing life back into a cast of long-dead characters. (

  6. AD410, The Year That Shook Rome is highly recommended.  It is written in a scholarly manner but avoids the academic jargon that can cloud the narrative of some historical works.  Buy it now, while copies of the first edition are still available. (The Searcher)

On 24th August, author Ruth Downie wrote on her blog: ‘As BBC Radio 4 reminded us all this morning, this is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome  I fear that in the past I may have failed to mention the excellent  ’AD410: The Year that Shook Rome’, by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard. So I’m mentioning it today. It’s the useful sort of history book : the kind that’s written in an engaging manner, that actually explains what happened, and that doesn’t assume vast amounts of prior knowledge.  It also has some great pictures.  If only I could remember who I lent mine to…’

The book has been generally well received on Amazon, too, generating 18 reviews averaging 4 stars.  Comments range from ‘what a page-turner this is’ to ‘deserves to be a movie’. 

AD410, The Year That Shook Rome by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard is published in the UK by The British Museum Press and in the US by Getty Publications.

From the Salarian Gate, Alaric’s men fanned out through the city. They had their orders and their objectives. Wholesale massacre and destruction would not be tolerated. Instead, the Goths would target iconic buildings, whose significance resonated deep in the Roman psyche.

Just inside the Salarian Gate lay the Gardens of Sallust, a palace complex built centuries before and funded by extortion in the provinces. Now rich in gold and jewels, they were soon pillaged. Everything that could be moved was looted, leaving only marble statuary behind - wounded Niobids and dying Gauls. Then the palaces were torched. More than a hundred years later, Procopius would shudder at the blackened ruins of their once opulently frescoed walls.

But more symbolic of the might of Rome were the mausoleums of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian. Deliberately singled out, they were quickly stripped and ransacked; the ashes of imperial dynasties, revered by generations, were scattered to the wind. It was an intentional and provocative act of desecration striking at the core of Rome’s identity. To underline the point, the buildings themselves were left intact, but impotent and exorcised of all their ancient might and majesty.

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