When applied to a city a sack is a general term and therefore rather vague. In effect however, the meaning of to sack is closer to that of to plunder than that of to raze to the ground although one has inevitably to account for some material damages to the city.
Oddly enough one has two different but complementary etymologies for two similar words
- To sack seems to come from the Phoenician through Latin and French (See for instance the Hebrew שק IPA/sak/ which means ‘a bag’),
- Whilst to ransack is from Viking origin and means to search (to seek Old Norse soekja) house by house (Old Norse rann "house").
The very reason why sacking is just plundering is that razing is too much work for very little benefit. There are actually only a few famous examples of utter destruction in history.
The only really famous ones I can think of are Thebes destroyed by Alexander and Carthage which was first sacked by its own mercenaries in 240BC before being completely flattened in by the Romans in 146 BC (Scipio Africanus the Younger is even reported to have spread salt in the fields to wipe Carthage off the map definitely, but there's no evidence for this)1.
One can clearly observe on many examples that the plundering of a city is meant as an incentive and reward to the assailant soldiers (who have no real interest in putting it down) whereas its razing to the ground has to come from a political authority and is intended to make an example or to annihilate definitively the opponent. The former is much more frequent than the latter.
In fact, the larger the city, the most likely it is to survive a sack and stay inhabited (either by its spared original population or by the invaders or a mix of both) – a testimony of the resilience of the human species social brain wiring.
For the record, examples of famous cities who survived many sacks are
- Jerusalem (e.g. 70 Titus massacre, 1099 the first crusade massacre);
- Troy (see Schliemann’s 9 cities);
- Rome ( 410, 455, 1084, 1527 massacre);
- Byzantium (1204 massacre, 1453 massacre);
- Nanjing (589 razed, 1937 massacre).
I’m actually curious about what particular history initially prompted your question. Records of repetitive destruction of cities in western history I can think of include