Memory  /  Art History

The False Narratives of the Fall of Rome Mapped Onto America

Gravely inaccurate 19th-century depictions of the destruction of Rome are used to illustrate parallels between Rome and the U.S.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1776, Gibbon presented the first of six volumes of his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to the public. It immediately became a bestseller. Interest in the decline of the Roman empire became a subject of popular fascination, particularly for White colonial men who lived in fear of losing their own grip on power and took his narrative as a cautionary tale. As ancient historian Glen W. Bowersock later put it, during the Enlightenment, the idea of the Fall of Rome became an “archetype for every perceived decline and, hence, as a symbol of our own fears.” Literary descriptions of the sacking of Rome in particular began to resonate in Europe and the United States. But it was during the neoclassical Romanticism and nation building of the 19th century that artistic depictions of the sack of Rome began to gain steam.

The most famous depiction of the sacking of the city in 455 still seen widely today in print is “Genseric’s Invasion of Rome” by Russian painter Karl Bryullov (1799–1852) painted in 1833–36. The Russian painter had trained in Rome and was part of the neoclassical movement of the time which adapted many scenes from classical antiquity for a 19th-century audience. It was this early interest in Roman history that had compelled Bryullov’s best known work: “The Last Day of Pompeii” (1830–1833), which showed the mayhem of the city of Pompeii in the midst of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The theme of disaster and panic would pervade his subsequent “Invasion of Rome” as well. However, “Genseric’s Invasion of Rome” would also include the projection of a number of modern anxieties and orientalizing aspects that reflected the fears of the time in Russia. In particular the influence of Islam was dreaded.

Despite the fact that the prophet Muhammad had not yet even been born (and thus Islam had not been founded as a religion), the painting depicts dark skinned Moors dressed as Muslims and attacking rather pale-skinned Romans. On his personal blog, early medieval historian Guy Halsall has pointed out a number of the anachronistic elements in Bryullov’s painting which together point to 19th-century culture clashes and racism — rather than the reality of the fifth century CE or the true ethnic identity of the Vandals.

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