I've been reading some early medieval history lately, and much of the narrative, of course, encompasses warfare, which seems to have been almost ubiquitous in those times. Anyway, in these histories I read, many times I have come upon a city being described as being "sacked" by various personalities. Now, when I picture that state of such a city, I typically think of a town burnt to the ground, alongside good helping of wanton destruction and rape. In any case, the most important part of my mental image is the idea that it it takes a long time to recover from, and that there's a lot of destruction.

In one particular history I'm reading, however, I keep coming across cities being sacked, many times in a row, sometimes within the same year, which leads me to believe that my mental image of a sacking is a bit off. What should it be? Most particularly: Is anything actually destroyed during a sacking, or is it simply a forced transfer of power alongside an occupation?

  • 1
    To be crystal clear, sacking has absolutely no connection to "transfer of power" or "destruction" or "time to recovery" or any of the issues mentioned. It very simply means "looting."
    – Fattie
    Jul 2 '11 at 21:41
  • Just don't picture too much violence in your mind when thinking of "sack"..
    – Thursagen
    Jul 5 '11 at 5:28

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


The sacking part is when you take all the valuables.

It's essentially the same as "loot."

People lazily use it to mean "destroyed," "razed," etc. But it simply means to take all the valuables.

Thus, you would destroy, and perhaps then, subsequently, sack, a city. Or you might sack it, and specifically not destroy it ... or you might sack it, and then after sacking it, you might leisurely destroy it. Or you might just (being in a hurry perhaps) destroy it and not even bother sacking it.

(Does pillage means the same as sack or loot? I think so, but I'm not totally sure.)

  • I'm happy to say pillage is the same as sack. Main difference to me is pillaging usually comes after raping, whereas sacking usually comes after a bloody battle. Jul 2 '11 at 21:41
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    @Fumble Well, "raping and pillaging" is a commonish phrase. But you understand that raping very much (originally) means ... well it means: sacking, or pillage. (Only recently does it mean "violently forced intercourse.") So that's a bit confusing. Furthermore even with today's meaning of "rape" you can use rape by extension to mean not literally rape of a human but, for example, "the banks raped the country" - ie, essentially .... looted, stole from. I stumbled on this: randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20001201
    – Fattie
    Jul 2 '11 at 21:59
  • .. the core point in that article being, ...did this phrase actually start out as a redundant expression like "aiding and abetting" or "to have and to hold"?
    – Fattie
    Jul 2 '11 at 22:01
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    @Joe I would definitely discourage people from using 'rape' in any sense other than to mean forced intercourse (I also notice you specify 'violently', which not all rape is). Likening financial loss, sporting loss, or some other event to actual rape devalues what rape victims have been through, and encourages further development of a rape culture. To find out more, start here: [trigger warning] shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/10/rape-culture-101.html
    – Loquacity
    Jul 3 '11 at 0:34
  • 4
    @FumbleFingers - Viking Sacking Manual: Remember: Pillage, then burn.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 16 '11 at 22:43

The meanings of sack reported by the NOAD are the following:

  • (chiefly in historical contexts) plunder and destroy (a captured town, building, or other place)
  • the pillaging of a town or city

In both the cases, the word is associated with violence, or wartime.

The word comes from a French word that took the Italian phrase mettere a sacco as model. In Italian, the word sack is also used in phrases such as il sacco di Roma, which is used to refer to a historical event.

  • +1, per l'etimologia Italiana ;-) Colgo anche l'occasione per precisare che ci sono stati almeno cinque sacchi di Roma 1/ Dal Brenno dei Galli (con l'episodio famoso delle oche capitoline) 2/ in 410 dai Visigoti di Alaric 3/ in 455 dai Vandali 4/ Dai Normanni quando il Papa chiamo' Roberto il Guiscardo a soccorso, il quale colse la opportunità di farsi il protettore dal Papato e 5/ finalmente il famoso sacco dai Lanzichenecchi di Carlo V durante il quale Clemente VII Medici si scappo travestito da ortolano. Jul 5 '11 at 3:02

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