The rhetorical point of departure for civ. is clear and famous (retr. 2.43): ‘Interea Roma Gothorum irruptione agentium sub rege Alarico atque impetu magnae cladis eversa est. Cuius eversionem deorum falsorum multorumque cultores, quos usitato nomine paganos vocamus, in christianam religionem referre conantes, solito acerbius et amarius Deum verum blasphemare coeperunt. Unde ego exardescens zelo domus Dei adversus eorum blasphemias vel errores libros de civitate Dei scribere institui.’ But A.’s rhetorical strategy should not be allowed to obscure the sequence of events that led up to the work.
On 24 August 410 the Visigoths under Alaric entered Rome, remaining to plunder for a few days. The event is of modest importance among the military disasters of the late empire, but it was too obvious a symbol to be viewed by contemporaries with any balanced perspective. Jerome’s disproportionate exclamations of grief (his epp. 123, 127, 130, etc.) are perhaps more famous than they deserve to be; other immediate reactions are lacking. Our main historical sources for the events all date from after years, when the events of that week had become the substance of polemic. How severe the calamity really was cannot be said with certainty. It is safe to infer that there was death and destruction, fire and plunder, and other injuries besides.
A.’s first known reaction to the events came in s. 81, preached at Hippo later in 410. This text gives few circumstantial details of the sack; A. seems uncertain himself and preaches under the assumption that the damage to the city may have been considerable. He makes no mention of what will later be a central piece of his defense, that refugees were granted sanctuary in the basilicas outside the City. There are already refugees coming to Africa, for he closes thus: ‘et in ista occasione multorum peregrinorum, egentium, laborantium, abundet hospsitalitas vestra, abundent bona opera vestra.’ (s. 81.9) There are already murmurs in the air: ‘Locutiones illae, verba illa, quibus nobis dicitur: Ecce quid faciunt tempora christiana, ecce quae sunt scandala. … Ecce quae nobis dicunt pagani: quae nobis dicunt, quod est gravius, mali christiani.’ (s. 81.7-8) But the response A. offers is already marked by the theme of citizenship and pilgrimage: ‘Eia, christiane, coeleste germen, peregrini in terra, qui civitatem in coelo quaeritis, qui angelis sanctis sociari desideratis, intelligite vos sic venisse ut discedatis.’ (s. 81.7) Some of the rhetorical devices that characterize ciu. are also in place: the pagan gods of Rome are reproached for failing to preserve their first home, Troy, and Sallust and Vergil are quoted to drive the point home. In short, there is worry in the air and A. moves quickly to offer Christians the line to take; he shows no sign here that he shares any of the extreme emotional response of a Jerome. The events entail for A., as they always would, a threat against Christianity in the realm of ideas and ideology; the material threat to the stability of the Roman regime is an incidental concern. The response is in an accordingly lofty tone, buttressed with secular and sacred learning and calm reflection.