A Short and Sobering History of Vandalism

“In all quarters pillage and destruction were the order of the day.”

Henri Grégoire, Memorial (1794)

We have our word vandal from the name of the Germanic tribe that sacked the city of Rome in 455 A.D., thereby abetting the collapse of the Western empire and setting an example for all subsequent and eponymous barbarians.  There were, to be sure, many other malignancies crippling the sinews and thews of Rome, and this was not the first time the city had been sacked, but the sack of the Vandals was for many an omen of the end that would soon be upon them.

The Germanic tribe called itself the Wendlas, a name that is generally interpreted as meaning wanderers, and over the course of the two centuries preceding their sack of Rome, the Wendlas had indeed wandered, from the shores of the Black Sea, through Iberia, and into the Roman province of Africa.  This province they conquered and governed as Carthage redivivus, a maritime nemesis to the tottering hubris of Rome.  The history of the word vandal therefore reminds us of the deep connection between rootless and wandering peoples and the vandalism of predatory destruction.  The fate of a settled people is tied to their place of settlement, and this normally causes them to conserve and cultivate that place.  The fate of a rootless and wandering people is, by way of contrast, tied to their success in the ancient art of smash, grab and run away.

It must be added, however, that the nomadic Vandals were merely the most recent rulers of the Roman province of Africa, and that they were assisted in their sack of Rome by its indigenous population of Moors.  Moors were the people of the southwest Mediterranean littoral, and they had been colonial subjects of Rome since the fall of Carthage five hundred years before.  The Moors were by complexion a swarthy people, partly owing to their having lived for generations under the north African sun, and partly owing to miscegenation with Negros from south of the Sahara, and the name Moor is therefore thought to mean something like people of dark skin.

Thus, when Rome was so infamously vandalized in 455, the root causes were the decadence of a dying civilization, the rapacity of a hostile, rootless and wandering elite, and the mobilized resentment of a multitude with a historical hatred for Rome.  As Edward Gibbon put it,

“Rome and its inhabitants were delivered to the licentiousness of the Vandals and the Moors, whose blind passions revenged the injuries of Carthage.”*

* * * * *

It is said that the Vandal army spared Christian churches as a courtesy to the Bishop of Rome, Leo I, but that it stripped the gilded roof from the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and that it also pillaged the holy vessels, cast in gold, that Titus had pillaged from the Temple in Jerusalem four hundred years earlier.  Thus, the name of Vandal was connected to sacrilege as well as the ruin of civilization.**

In the late eighteenth century, it was therefore natural for the champions of Christian Europe to describe their revolutionary antagonists as “modern Vandals.”  We find this epithet, for instance, in Augustin Barruel’s great reactionary history of the French Revolution, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1799).***  Speaking of Adam Weishaupt, the man he fingered as the evil genius behind the Revolution, Barruel said,

“He informs you, that nations, together with their laws and social institutions, shall vanish, and that they shall disappear before the all-powerful arm of his adepts, or his modern Vandals.”***

The word vandalism entered English in the translation of Barruel’s Memoirs.  A French bishop had coined the word three years earlier to decry the pillage of French libraries and galleries, and Barruel employed the new word in several places.  Barruel’s genius was to perceive that there was no limit to the program of Jacobin destruction, and that Vandalism was at bottom the doctrine that Leon Trotsky would later call permanent revolution.  Barruel explained the inner meaning of this doctrine of perpetual Vandalism in the line immediately following the line just quoted.

“What new secrets then remains to be discovered, unless it be that no time shall blunt the sword or slack the unrelenting fury of his [Weishaupt’s] proselytes; that they shall persevere until the end of time in their Vandalism, lest Religion, society, science, arts, the love of one’s country, and respect for property, should shoot forth again . . .”

In this extremely pregnant line, Barruel tells us that Vandalism is the poison with which the Revolution proposes to avert return to social and spiritual health.  Human society before the Revolution was like a forest of ancient trees; the Revolution was a devastating fire; Vandalism is the means to preserve the burnt wasteland by nipping every sapling that sprouts from the undying roots of those ancient trees.  Without a vigilant Vandalism, the charred stump of Religion will “shoot forth again.”  Without a vigilant Vandalism, anarchy must return to a natural social order of rank and degree, skepticism must return to science, obscenity must return to art, cosmopolitanism must return to patriotism, and communism must return to private property.

Barruel’s Vandalism is, therefore, the revolutionary antidote to social and spiritual Restoration, and it works by ceaselessly desecrating that forest of ancient trees with a litany of lies.  Imagine, if you will, an evil physician who schemes to keep his patient bedridden by warning the invalid against the terrible dangers of returning to a regimen of fresh air, exercise, and solid food.  Imagine this physician admonishing his patient to foreswear nostalgia for the days before he was bedridden, and indeed to look back on his days of “health” with a mixture of pity, horror and disgust.  Imagine this physician standing at the window of the sickroom and reporting that every man and woman walking out of doors would be better off dead, and then dosing his patient with a fistful of sickening pills.  The ministrations of this evil physician are direct analogues of what Barruel meant by desecrating Vandalism.

* * * * *

The word vandalism was, as I said, coined by a Roman Catholic bishop, one Henri Grégoire, Bishop of Blois, in the valley of the Loire.  Grégoire invented the word to describe the Revolution’s spoliation of French libraries and galleries, whether by wanton destruction or outright theft.  In a Memorial of 1794 he wrote:

“For these five last years whatever was precious in paintings and libraries has been destroyed or sold at vile price to strangers; what the administrators did not sell, were left to be eat by worms, and exposed to the dust and the rain.”†

Grégoire’s vandalism was not, therefore, the desecrating doctrine of permanent revolution, but rather a vulgar hash of ignorance, spite and greed.  It was depredation by vandals of the old school, these differing from those who sacked Rome only in the fact that they sacked the palaces and temples of their own native land.  Indeed, they plundered their own nation with the pretense that they were, in fact, that nation, and that their doctrine of vandalism justified looting as a sort of reparation.  As Grégoire put it:

“The moveables belonging to the nation have suffered immense dilapidation, because rogues, who have always a logic to themselves, have said, We are the nation.”

* * * * *

I trust it is by now clear that the vandalism in our own day combines the “unrelenting fury” and desectation of Barruel’s “modern Vandals” with the shameless cupidity of Grégoire’s “rogues.”  It takes in the low vandalism of the streets and the high vandalism of the schools, and it is driven as much by a fanatical hatred for the natural social order as is it by a knavish lust for plunder and pelf.  This a powerful combination in which thieves masquerade as idealists and idealists exploit the cunning ingenuity of thieves. And like the eponymous looters of the year 455, its root causes are the decadence of a dying civilization, the rapacity of a hostile, rootless and wandering elite, and the mobilized resentment of a multitude with a historical hatred for that civilization.

*) Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788), chap. 36
**) “Sacrilege is an invading, stealing or purloining from God, any sacred thing, either belonging to the majesty of his person, or appropriate to the celebration of his divine service.”  Sir Henry Spelman, The History and Fate of Sacrilege (1698).
***) vol. 3.
†) Reprinted in William Playfair, The History of Jacobinism (1796), vol. 2.

2 thoughts on “A Short and Sobering History of Vandalism

  1. The modern day vandals for example vandalize all urban spaces with ugly monstrosities of built structure. No place is untouched by the vandalism of deliberate ugliness. No Pristine Wilderness without the work of the Satanic Vandal like a cancer on the Artwork of creation.

    • It is important to see that vandalism is not limited to teenagers with spray paint, although equally important to remember that teenagers with spray paint is vandalism. The mark of the vandal is pillage and/or desecration.


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