September 11, 2001, is frequently compared to December 7, 1941, as a day that will "live in infamy." But a more appropriate analogy might be August 24, 410, when the city of Rome was besieged and pillaged by an army of 40,000 "barbarians" led by the Osama bin Laden of late antiquity, a wily warrior named Alaric.

Before then, Roman coins bore the legend Invicta Roma Aeterna: Eternal, unconquerable Rome. It had been more than 800 years since the Eternal City had fallen to an enemy's attack. In many ways, Rome was like America prior to 9/11, the world's only superpower. But in 410, Rome's military power could not prevent its walls being breached, its women raped, and its sacred precincts burned and sacked.

When the Bible translator Jerome heard about the fall of Rome in faraway Bethlehem, he put aside his Commentary on Ezekiel and sat stupefied in total silence for three days. "Rome was besieged," Jerome wrote to a friend. "The city to which the whole world fell has fallen. If Rome can perish, what can be safe?" The British monk Pelagius, who was in Rome when the attack occurred, gave this report: "Every household had its grief, and an all-pervading terror gripped us."

Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa, began writing The City of God to counter those who said Rome's fall was the gods' punishment of the ascendant Christians, and to give guidance to fellow Christians who felt the world was crumbling around them. He completed this "great and laborious work," as he called it, just four years before his death in 430. Its influence extended to the Reformation and beyond. For 1,500 years, it has been the bedrock of a Christian philosophy of history.

Between the conversion of Constantine in 312 and Augustine's own conversion ...

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