The Goths and The Roman Empire (Alaric)

The Goths and The Roman Empire (Alaric)

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When the Goths became Roman Mercenaries, who were they tasked to fight, if not the Huns?

It is possible that some Goths became Roman mercenaries as early as the reign of Galerius (305-311 AD). See

Michael Kulikowski, Rome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric:

"Goths may have been recruited into the imperial army and served with Galerius in Persia, though the only evidence comes from Jordanes and is therefore suspect."

This did not prevent Roman-Gothic wars from resuming soon afterward (during the reign of Constantin, see the same book).

These wars continued throughout 4th century AD. Nevertheless, according to this wikipedia article, "As the Goths increasingly became soldiers in the Roman armies in the 4th Century AD, contributing to the almost complete Germanization of the Roman Army by that time, the Gothic penchant for wearing skins became fashion in Constantinople, which was heavily denounced by conservatives."

Alaric's brother, Ataulf, was hired by Honorius to fight first, an usurping emperor, then the Vandals and Alans that had settled in Spain. This seems to have been fairly typical.

The western barbarians often seemed to want to exchange their military service for Roman grants and honours, not imagining they could take down an empire that had lasted for many centuries, so many of them happily hired on to fight germanic aggressors not far different from themselves.


Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Alaric, (born c. 370, Peuce Island [now in Romania]—died 410, Cosentia, Bruttium [now Cosenza, Italy]), chief of the Visigoths from 395 and leader of the army that sacked Rome in August 410, an event that symbolized the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

A nobleman by birth, Alaric served for a time as commander of Gothic troops in the Roman army, but shortly after the death of the emperor Theodosius I in 395, he left the army and was elected chief of the Visigoths. Charging that his tribe had not been given subsidies promised by the Romans, Alaric marched westward toward Constantinople (now Istanbul) until he was diverted by Roman forces. He then moved southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus (the port of Athens) and ravaged Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. The Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius finally placated the Visigoths in 397, probably by appointing Alaric magister militum (“master of the soldiers”) in Illyricum.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy, but he was defeated by the Roman general Flavius Stilicho at Pollentia (modern Pollenza) on April 6, 402, and forced to withdraw from the peninsula. A second invasion also ended in defeat, though Alaric eventually compelled the Senate at Rome to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. After Stilicho was murdered in August 408, an antibarbarian party took power in Rome and incited the Roman troops to massacre the wives and children of tribesmen who were serving in the Roman army. These tribal soldiers thereupon defected to Alaric, substantially increasing his military strength.

Although Alaric was eager for peace, the Western emperor Flavius Honorius refused to recognize his requests for land and supplies. The Visigothic chieftain thereupon laid siege to Rome (408) until the Senate granted him another subsidy and assistance in his negotiations with Honorius. Honorius remained intransigent, however, and in 409 Alaric again surrounded Rome. He lifted his blockade after proclaiming Attalus as Western emperor. Attalus appointed him magister utriusque militiae (“master of both services”) but refused to allow him to send an army into Africa. Negotiations with Honorius broke down, and Alaric deposed Attalus in the summer of 410, besieging Rome for the third time. Allies within the capital opened the gates for him on August 24, and for three days his troops occupied the city, which had not been captured by a foreign enemy for nearly 800 years. Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. Having abandoned a plan to occupy Africa. Alaric died as the Visigoths were marching northward.

In "Unbiased History" [ edit | edit source ]

"Barbarians at the Gates" [ edit | edit source ]

With Thrace being sacked by the Visigoths due to being driven out by the Huns, Theodosius I sent Stilicho to stop the invading horde. The horde was pushed back, but Alaric, king of the Visigoths, escaped. Theodosius, being a simp for barbarians, went to Alaric to enlist some of his men into the army, fuelling their bloodlust for Roman blood. During the Battle of the Frigidus, Alaric helped out the Romans against the half-barbarian Arbogaust and the puppet Eugenius. After one of Arbogaust's legions defected to Theodosius and a storm blew the traitors' spear and arrows back at them, the coalition, including Alaric, won, resulting in Arbogaust's suicide and Eugenius' capture.

When Rufinus died after Alaric tried to sack Athens, and Eutropius replaced him, Stilicho was sent back to the West, causing Alaric to be named the Magister Militum of the east, despite his crimes against the Romans. Surprising nobody, he terrorised the citizens whilst Eutropius let him do so, with Arcadius being useless.

While Stilicho pushed back the Vandals, Alaric and his army invaded Italy, being kicked out of Mediolanum, starting a chase between him and Stilicho, stopping for a counterattack in Verona. After his defeat, he began to build up his horde of Goths, and thus marched again, this time to Rome itself with the aide of the traitorous Foederati. After demanding Rome to free the Gothic slaves, successfully, Alaric then ordered Honorius to make him the leader of all Roman armies, for which he refused until his brother-in-law invaded the recent capital city of Ravenna. This was after Stilicho was executed two years prior. He then ordered Honorius to be deposed and exiled, for which he refused after Anthemius sent backup.

What Alaric did next was abominable: ransacking Rome. His horde killed innocents, tore down the statue of Deus Sol Invictus, destroyed Rome's buildings, and scattered the ashes of emperors past into the wind, never to be recovered. Satisfied with his bloodlust, at the age of 40, he caught a fever and died, leaving Rome a mess, the Visigoths to be lead by Ataulf, and the era of Classical civilization to near a horrible close.

He is seen in the ending montage with the shadows of Odoacer, Attila, Ricimer, and Geiseric in the background, overseeing Stilicho, Aetius, and Majorian.

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Yet the soft power of Romanitas—a concept that is hard to define precisely but encompasses the values, amenities, and way of life of the imperial system—remained alluring. Many “barbarians”—not a word much in favor these days—became citizens their families may have been citizens for centuries. When expedient, whole tribes were welcomed into the empire and given some sort of legal status. In a . d . 212, Emperor Caracalla, bowing to reality, granted citizenship to all freeborn persons within the empire’s borders. Among the beneficiaries of Caracalla’s edict was a foreign soldier of mixed heritage named Maximinus Thrax, who became an imperial soldier and in 235 was proclaimed emperor. Outsiders didn’t seek to lay waste to Rome they wanted to become insiders. In a way, they loved Rome to death.

Alaric was one of these people—don’t think of him as a man in bearskins who worshipped the forest gods. The bare outline of his life is not in dispute. He was born north of the Danube River to a prominent Gothic family in what had once been the imperial province of Dacia (roughly corresponding to modern Romania). The Romans had long since withdrawn, but his family was familiar with Rome and its ways. Alaric spoke Latin as well as his native Gothic tongue. He had been baptized a Christian, even if doctrinal affinity put him in the heretical Arian camp.

As a youth, Alaric crossed the Danube to seek his fortunes in the imperial army, bringing others with him, and proved himself a natural leader. At the Battle of Frigidus, in 394, he and his Gothic foederati saved the day for Emperor Theodosius. The cost to the Goths was high: some 10,000 killed. Alaric seems to have felt that their sacrifice—and his own role—wasn’t appreciated or even acknowledged. He retaliated angrily by marauding through Greece. As a placatory gesture, Emperor Arcadius—son of Theodosius—named him general of Illyricum, an imperial prefecture extending from the Balkans south to the sea. It was a significant responsibility. But administrative reshuffling soon eliminated the position. Alaric’s sense of grievance was now at a boil.

He commanded a force of Goths that was augmented, as time went on, by warriors from other groups. He wanted some combination of respect, money, territory to occupy, and a seat at the table. After one failed try, he led his forces into Italy a second time, buoyed by victories, undeterred by defeats, and always seeking to negotiate with the ruling powers. Extortion was generally involved. Eventually he reached Rome, putting the city under siege off and on for two years. His ability to interdict grain shipments led to hardship inside the walls. Countless efforts to defuse the crisis showed initial promise and then collapsed—Emperor Honorius, based in Ravenna, proved pigheaded and duplicitous. Finally, on the night of August 24, Alaric’s forces made their way inside.

Upbraided once for behaving badly, Evelyn Waugh replied, “Imagine how much worse I’d be if I weren’t a Catholic.” Something similar might be said of Alaric. He was Arian, to be sure, but regarded himself as a Christian, as Arians indeed were. He decreed churches and holy sites to be inviolable, and gave sanctuary to anyone who took refuge there. “He also told his men,” according to Orosius, one of the more straightforward chroniclers, “that as far as possible, they must refrain from shedding blood in their hunger for booty.” There was certainly violence, often attributed to the unruly Huns among Alaric’s forces, and many fires were set. Palaces and ordinary homes were looted. And yet even sources hostile to Alaric comment on his relative restraint, at least by the standards of the day. Archaeology has not uncovered evidence of vast destruction. A Sack of Rome Conference held in the city in 2010 revealed many disagreements among historians, but Rome’s fate was not that of Carthage or Dresden. Monumental buildings remained intact. Rome recovered, up to a point. But it was no longer seen as impregnable and, decades later, would be sacked again. A gradual depopulation began.

When their fury was spent, the Goths followed the Via Appia south, then veered off into the toe of Italy. The intended destination was North Africa, the breadbasket of Rome, where the Goths hoped they might find a place to call their own. They never made it: Storms forced their ships to turn back. Alaric suddenly took ill—with what, no one knows—and in a few days was dead.

His mode of burial, apparently following Gothic tradition, became the stuff of lore. A river near the present-day city of Cosenza was momentarily diverted and a grave dug in the riverbed. Alaric was interred, along with a trove of valuables. Then the river was restored to its course. The slaves who did the work were executed, consigning the whereabouts of the site to oblivion. Over the years, treasure-hunters including Heinrich Himmler have searched for the hoard of Alaric. In 2015, Cosenza launched a search of its own. So far, the treasure, if it ever existed, has proved more elusive than Alaric’s life story.

It is hardly Douglas Boin’s fault that the balance in his narrative between “the man” and “his times” is no balance at all. The scales tilt heavily toward Alaric’s times—a rich subject in its own right—and Boin renders the confusion of the era without replicating that confusion in his prose. Alaric can never emerge as a fully three-dimensional figure, but in Boin’s hands he is lifted convincingly from the realm of brutish caricature.

Though Boin doesn’t advance an explicit argument, a preoccupation lurks within his language. “Alaric’s actions,” he writes at one point, “forced a difficult, long-overdue conversation about acceptance, belonging, and the rights of immigrant communities.” That’s a very 21st-century formulation. Was there a Ravenna Ideas Festival? The collective term he uses for Goths, Vandals, Huns, and other groups is always “immigrants.” In his pages we encounter “border patrol,” “border separation,” “gated communities,” and “cultural warriors.” He refers to the Danube River as a “fence.” He describes a “new combustible mix of xenophobia and cultural supremacy” that encouraged public figures to work “populism and nationalism into their applause lines.” Alaric the Goth is not a polemic. It never invokes modern times explicitly. But the linguistic anachronisms are inescapable. Intended perhaps to be slyly allusive, they come across as winks.

“Presentism” is a snare. The 21st century is not the fifth. But history should provoke, and Boin has a point. Migration flows around the world today are unremitting. Group allegiance is fluid, and the distribution of power capricious. “Us” and “them” remain fundamental categories. There’s an American version of Romanitas, and even antagonists want a piece of it. General James Mattis once recalled interrogating a jihadist in Iraq—formerly Mesopotamia, that graveyard of Roman dreams. The man had been caught planting a roadside bomb. As he was led off to prison, he asked Mattis a question: When he got out, would it be possible to emigrate to America? Mattis appreciated the irony. Alaric might have too.

The Goths Sack Rome

On August 24, 410 Goths, under Alaric I, captured and sacked the city of Rome.

"Because the barbarians had converted to Christian sect Arianism it was not a particularly violent looting with relatively little rape, murder and damage to buildings, but it still had a profound effect on the city. Many of the city's great buildings were ransacked, including the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian, in which many Roman Emperors of the past were buried. This was the first time the city had been sacked in 800 years, and its citizens were devastated. Tens of thousands of Romans fled the economically ruined city into the countryside, with many of them seeking refuge in Africa" (Wikipedia article on Sack of Rome [410], accessed 05-10-2009).

"We are told that during one siege the inhabitants were forced progressively 'to reduce their rations and to eat only half the previous daily allowance, and later, when the scarcity continued, only a third.' 'When there was no means of relief, and their food was exhausted, plague not unexpectedly succeeded famine. Corpses lay everywhere. . . .' The eventual fall of the city, according to another account, occurred because a rich lady 'felt pity for the Romans who were being killed off by starvation and who were already turning to cannibalism', and so opened the gates to the enemy" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005]17).

¶ Some historians see this as a major landmark in the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Alaric the Goth Has Been Featured At

The Paris Review (Contributor’s Favorites of 2020)

Denied citizenship by the Roman Empire, a soldier named Alaric changed history by unleashing a surprise attack on the capital city of an unjust empire.

Stigmatized and relegated to the margins of Roman society, the Goths were violent “barbarians” who destroyed “civilization,” at least in the conventional story of Rome’s collapse. But a slight shift of perspective brings their history, and ours, shockingly alive.

Alaric grew up near the river border that separated Gothic territory from Roman. He survived a border policy that separated migrant children from their parents, and he was denied benefits he likely expected from military service. Romans were deeply conflicted over who should enjoy the privileges of citizenship. They wanted to buttress their global power, but were insecure about Roman identity they depended on foreign goods, but scoffed at and denied foreigners their own voices and humanity. In stark contrast to the rising bigotry, intolerance, and zealotry among Romans during Alaric’s lifetime, the Goths, as practicing Christians, valued religious pluralism and tolerance. The marginalized Goths, marked by history as frightening harbingers of destruction and of the Dark Ages, preserved virtues of the ancient world that we take for granted.

The three nights of riots Alaric and the Goths brought to the capital struck fear into the hearts of the powerful, but the riots were not without cause. Combining vivid storytelling and historical analysis, Douglas Boin reveals the Goths’ complex and fascinating legacy in shaping our world.

Delving into History ® _ periklis deligiannis

By Periklis Deligiannis

After the carnage of the Roman army in the Battle of Adrianople (AD 378), the new emperor Theodosius checked as possible the Visigoths until AD 382 when he came to an agreement with them, formally accepting their settlement in the Roman territory as foederati (dependent allies). The Goths joined en masse the Eastern Roman army which was decimated after the defeat at Adrianople. They soon acquired considerable political influence in the court of Constantinople. It is characteristic that a Goth, the famous Gainas (Gaenas), came up to all the offices – one by one – of the military hierarchy and ultimately tried to seize the imperial throne, but without success. The Eastern Romans (Early Byzantines) realized the mortal danger of the Goths that was threatening the Empire and reacted violently. An intense anti-Germanic feeling prevailed in Constantinople and in a few years most Goths had been expelled from the administration and the military. Later, the Byzantines settled many Goths in Asia Minor (in the territory of the later thema of Opsikion) who were gradually Hellenized and were called Gotthograeci (Gotho-Greeks).
Until recently the modern historians used to believe that the historical Visigoths were the descendants of the Western Goths of Gutthiunta and that the Ostrogoths originated from the Eastern Goths of Hermanaric. During the last decades it was ascertained that these correlations were not correct. The Visigoth tribal union was formed around the time of the battle of Adrianople, possibly in the eve of the battle, when the Thervingi combined forces with a portion of the Greuthungi who had escaped from the Hunnish yoke and with other barbarian groups. The Ostrogoth tribal union was formed a few decades later (around AD 400) when the rest scattered Greuthungi and other Gothic-German and Sarmatian groups (namely the Goths of the Amali Dynasty and later the Goths of Theuderic-Strabo, of Radagaesus, some Alan groups and others) joined forces. However, most modern books, studies and disquisitions continue to use anachronistically the ethnic terms Visigoths and Ostrogoths for the historical events before 378.

Upper map: The Medieval migrations of the Germanic Peoples.

Below: Roman Dacia was evacuated in AD 271, under the pressure of the Goths. The map notes them as ‘Visigoths’ but in fact they were the Goths and others of the Gutthiunta tribal union.

Theodosius’ death ‘sparked’ a new Visigoth revolt (395) under their young king Alaric (Ulrich in modern German), a strong and bold personality. Alaric led his men in raids on the Helladic areas, destroying and plundering many cities and towns from Thrace in the North to the Peloponnese in the South. In AD 400, when he finally perceived the indomitable power of the Eastern Empire, he decided to move his people to Italy, the core of the weaker Western Empire. However, the Visigoths were repulsed twice by the actions of a ‘close relative’ of them, Stilicho (Stilichon) the Vandal, a general of the Western Empire who had substantially become an unofficial viceroy of the empire. Finally, Alaric agreed to the settlement of his people in the provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia. The assassination of the perceptive Stilichon (AD 408) opened the route of invasion to the Visigoths. Alaric marched to Italy and conquered major cities, one after the other (Aquileia, Bononia and others) until he appeared in front of the walls of Rome. In 24 August of the year AD 410, the Gothic army conquered the “Eternal City” that had remained impregnable for 797 years (from 387/6 BC, when the Celtic Senones had conquered and plundered her).

The Visigoth capture and sack of Rome was a disastrous event in Roman History, the most disastrous according to some historians. The Western Roman World (already in decay) was shattered. The Visigoths undisturbed, held plunder, captivity, murder and other atrocities against the population for three days. Then they withdrew, taking with them a large part of the treasures of Rome and many prisoners, among them the sister of the Emperor Honorius. Only the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul escaped destruction by order of Alaric who was a Christian (in fact, an Arian Christian). The Visigoth king led his people in southern Italy, with the ultimate goal to conquer the rich provinces of Sicily and Africa. However, the vessels of his fleet were destroyed near Messina. In the end of 410, the great Goth king died in the town of Cosentia (South Italy).
The new Visigoth king Adaulf remained in Italy two more years, pillaging, slaughtering and capturing the people, until he moved his Goths to Gaul. The Visigoths had understood that despite their great victories, they could not stay in Italy because they would face a strong counterattack of the Western Empire and probably of the Eastern Empire as well (who didn’t want such a formidable enemy near her Helladic provinces). In Gaul and then in Spain, the Visigoths continued their destructive work until their next king, Wallia, concluded a peace treaty with the Roman patrician Constantius, chargé d’affaires of the Emperor Honorius (416). Wallia freed the emperor’s sister and became a foederatus warlord of the Empire. Meanwhile, two of the Vandal tribes, the Silingae (Silings) and the Hastingi (Hastings), had settled in Spain together with a part of the Sarmatian (Iranian) Alans, where they were conducting looting and other atrocities.

[Note: Yes, the British readers guessed correctly: The historic site of Hastings where in 1066 the Normans won the great battle for England, got its name from a group of Hasting Vandals who had followed the Anglo-Saxon invaders in Britannia (5th cent. AD)].

Honorius ordered Wallia to attack the Vandals and the Alans. The Visigoth army acting with real extremity, exterminated almost all the Silingae and many Alans (417-418). The survivors joined the Hastings. Later, the Hasting Vandals and the Alans crossed the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) and settled in North Africa, eventually conquering Carthage that became their capital (429). Meanwhile the Visigoths following the imperial instructions, evacuated Spain and settled in Southwestern Gaul, where they founded the so-called Gothic Kingdom of Tolosa (modern Toulouse).

The Roman army fought gallantly in the battle of Adrianople , however did not escape its overwhelming defeat . Two centuries later , the Eastern Roman /Byzantine army of Belisarius took an ‘informal revenge’ for the defeat at Adrianople, decimating the Ostrogoths ( although the main ancestors of the Ostrogoths had not fought in Adrianople ). Reenactment of Late Romans by the Historical Association Britannia.

The Visigoths did not cause problems again in the Empire. On the contrary, they fought together with Aetius against the Huns of Attila, in the great and bloody battle of Campus Mauriacus (or Catalaunian Fields, AD 451). The Visigoths fought bravely, suffering heavy casualties – among them their gallant king Theodoric. In the battle, the Visigoths encountered the Ostrogoths who were vassals of the Huns, as well as the other Eastern Gothic peoples (Gepids, Heruli and others). Since 443, another Gothic tribe, the Burgundians, had settled in Southeastern Gaul. In the same century, the Jutes (Jot/Got) of Jutland (most probably a Gothic tribe) became a component of the Anglo-Saxons who invaded Britain, together with some Vandals and Scandinavian Goths (of modern Sweden).

After the dissolution of the Hunnish State of Attila (454), the Ostrogoths settled in Pannonia and Moesia. In 476, the Western Empire came to an end when Odoacer, er mandingn end when a scirrhus Goths of mo a Scirian commander of mercenaries, deposed the last emperor and proclaimed himself king of Italy. In reality, he established an East Germanic/Gothic kingdom because he based his power mainly on Heruli warriors. The Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, desiring to remove the threatening Ostrogoths of her territory, had no choice but to manipulate their invasion in Italy. After all, Italy was no longer Roman. In Italy, the Ostrogoths clashed with their Gothic/Germanic kinsmen, the warriors of Odoacer (488-493). After fierce battles and the final surrender of the besieged capital Ravenna to the Ostrogoths, their king Theodoric killed Odoacer and his son. Italy, Pannonia, Dalmatia and Sicily made up the new Ostrogothic kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Gothic Gepids founded a powerful kingdom in Dacia and the Visigoths began to expand in the Iberian Peninsula. In AD 507, the aggressive Franks expelled the Visigoths from their Tolosan territory and until 531 they were expelled completely from Gaul. Three years later, the Franks destroyed and annexed the Burgundian kingdom. The Burgundians were gradually absorbed by the Gallo-Roman population. The Visigoths were confined to Iberia. Their kingdom comprised 75 % of the Peninsula while they were concentrated mainly in modern Segovia province and in the neighboring provinces of Madrid, Toledo (which was their capital), Palencia, Burgos, Soria and Guadalajara. Until 600 AD they abandoned their Gothic language, adopting the Neo-Latin dialect of Iberia.

In the next article on the History of the Goths, I shall deal with the last phases of their history, the destruction of the Ostrogoth and Vandal kingdoms by the Byzantines/Romans and the Visigoth kingdom by the Arabs, the fate of all the Gothic branches, and their modern descendants.

Periklis Deligiannis



(3) Maenchen-Helfen Otto: THE WORLD OF THE HUNS, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1973

The Goth Sack of Rome: A Timeline of Events

At the end of 409, Alaric, now reinforced by Athaulf, marched on Rome with 40,000 Goth, Vandal, Alan, and Hun warriors. This time Alaric occupied the huge Port of Ostia, with its massive wave-breaking moles, deep, capacious basins, and numerous outbuildings. It was here that the great grain shipments from the Province of Africa were stored. Their food supply assured, the Goths welcomed the shelter from the violent rainstorms that marked the Italian winter. Proclaiming that his enemy was not Rome but Honorius, Alaric threatened to cut off Rome’s grain supplies unless the Senate elected a new emperor. Honorius having been of no help to them, the Senate obliged by placing the crown and purple on the city prefect, a Greek named Priscus Attalus. The fickle mob greeted the Senate’s choice with jubilation, not just in Rome but in Milan as well. Attalus boasted that he “would leave Honorius not even the name of Emperor nor yet a sound body, but would mutilate him and exile him to an island.” Confident of his new ally, Alaric marched immediately to besiege Ravenna.

With Attalus in Rome and Alaric’s army outside his gates, Honorius was deeply worried. He was about to flee to Constantinople when six legions, some 4,000 men, arrived from the eastern capital. With them manning the parapets and towers, Honorius felt confident enough to remain holed up in Ravenna. He had another ally as well. Count Heraclian of Africa closed his ports. No more ships laden with grain sailed into Ostia. Whatever grain was left in the magazines the Goths used for themselves. Famine again afflicted the Romans.

During the Goth sack of rome, Alaric’s army storms the street during a brutal invasion of the city that would last for three days. The worst offenders would be the mercenary Huns.

Alaric broke off his investment of Ravenna and reduced most of the cities of Aemilia, which had refused Attalus’s rule. In this he received no help from Attalus, who seemed capable only of conducting fruitless negotiations with Honorius and Heraclian. Alaric soon had enough and summoned Attalus to Ariminum to publicly strip him of the purple. He decided to have another try at negotiating with Honorius, whom he met in July 410, a few miles from Ravenna. Sarus, Alaric’s old enemy, was also in Ravenna. He did not wish to see peace between Alaric and the emperor. Yelling and waving their weapons, Sarus and his Goths tore through Alaric’s camp before hightailing it back to the safety of Ravenna’s bastions. Convinced that Honorius and Sarus were working together, Alaric angrily broke off talks and marched on Rome for the third time. This time he was in no mood for mercy.

Once more the barbarians were at the gates, blockading Rome and starving its hapless population. The Gothic slaves and servants asked themselves why they should suffer for their Roman masters, and at midnight on the night of August 24, 410 ad, a group of them stole to the Salarian Gate and opened it to their erstwhile kinsmen. The citizens of Rome awoke to the sound of the Goth trumpets—the enemy was inside the city. When the Goth sack of Rome was at its apex, the barbarians stormed through the streets, scourging the city for three nightmarish days. The palace of the historian Sallust was burned to the ground, and the aristocratic houses along the Aventine also went up in flames. The worst offenders were the Huns who served in Alaric’s army. Rich furniture was thrown out of windows, silk hangings were torn from the walls, jeweled flourishes were pried out of statues. Wealthy Romans were repeatedly pummeled and kicked until they revealed hidden treasures. At last the conquerors filed out of the wasted city, laden with booty and followed by throngs of captives. Among the latter was the stunningly beautiful sister of Honorius, Galla Placidia, who remained in comfortable captivity with her childhood friend Alaric.

The Goths and The Roman Empire (Alaric) - History

Denied citizenship by the Roman Empire, a soldier named Alaric changed history by unleashing a surprise attack on the capital city of an unjust empire.

Stigmatized and relegated to the margins of Roman society, the Goths were violent “barbarians” who destroyed “civilization,” at least in the conventional story of Rome’s collapse. But a slight shift of perspective brings their history, and ours, shockingly alive.

Alaric grew up near the river border that separated Gothic territory from Roman. He survived a border policy that separated migrant children from their parents, and he was denied benefits he likely expected from military service. Romans were deeply conflicted over who should enjoy the privileges of citizenship. They wanted to buttress their global power, but were insecure about Roman identity they depended on foreign goods, but scoffed at and denied foreigners their own voices and humanity.

In stark contrast to the rising bigotry, intolerance, and zealotry among Romans during Alaric’s lifetime, the Goths, as practicing Christians, valued religious pluralism and tolerance. The marginalized Goths, marked by history as frightening harbingers of destruction and of the Dark Ages, preserved virtues of the ancient world that we take for granted. The three nights of riots Alaric and the Goths brought to the capital struck fear into the hearts of the powerful, but the riots were not without cause. Combining vivid storytelling and historical analysis, Douglas Boin reveals the Goths’ complex and fascinating legacy in shaping our world.

The following questions are designed to enhance your discussion of Alaric’s life and times.

Questions for Discussion

1. In his preface Douglas Boin talks about “stereotypes and gross generalizations” and how “derogatory words and insensitive imagery” can have a negative effect on the way we encounter minority lives in our history books (p. x). What came to your mind when you read that section?

2. What did you know about Alaric and the Goths before coming to this book? What did you know about the Roman Empire?

3. In chapter one, while narrating the events of Alaric’s attack on August 24, 410, the author describes many different aspects of Roman culture—from exotic food like “Indian parrot” to the Romans’ understanding of geography (p. 8). What surprised you most about the Roman people?

4. How has the popular presentation of Roman emperors from movies like Gladiator affected your view of the Romans? Did eighteen-year-old Honorius, in charge of Rome during Alaric’s attack, change what you thought about them, or confirm it?

5. In the opening chapter, the author leaves Alaric’s name out of the events until the very end of the narration. Can you recall other books, movies, or plays where the title character is unexpectedly left off stage to heighten the drama?

6. As a historian, Douglas Boin was limited in his reconstruction of Alaric’s childhood by the few sources that were available. What impression did you have of Alaric’s youth? What missing pieces of information about Alaric’s childhood do you wish historians still had?

7. In chapter two, Douglas Boin writes of the Emperor Maximinus that he was “the first man, who having been born a foreigner, then made a citizen by Caracalla’s law, was promoted to emperor” (p. 25). What parts of the emperor’s upbringing and experience spoke to you the most?

8. Do you agree with the Roman Empire’s justification, in the 370s A.D., for separating Gothic children from their parents (p. 41–43)?

9. Why do you think the Roman army attracted so many Goths of Alaric’s generation, when the Roman Empire had treated his people so savagely?

10. Do you or does anyone in your reading group speak or read another language? Was it easy or difficult for you to acquire, and how does your experience with your teachers compare to the story of the two Goths who wrote to St. Jerome for Latin grammar advice (p. 58–59)?

11. What are the circumstances that might lead an otherwise harmonious society, like Rome’s, to fall into a devastating civil war?

12. Goths, like Romans, were largely unfamiliar with Persian culture until they traveled to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for war. Are there aspects of Persian culture that are an important part of your life or upbringing? How do you think ordinary Romans viewed their Persian neighbors?

13. Ancient history is sometimes presented in popular media as a hyper-masculine world. But one of the ways Douglas Boin illustrates the impact of war in Alaric’s day is by looking through the lives of wives and other family members who lost loved ones. Do you a have favorite book—nonfiction or fiction—which widened your understanding of another period through its unexpected perspective?

14. In his chapter on Athens, Douglas Boin explains how theatrical shows, in a time of widespread illiteracy, challenged ancient audiences “to imagine an outsider’s perspective on well-known events” (p. 118). What are some of the obstacles today’s actors, playwrights, and directors face in trying to bring similar “outsider” stories before the public?

15. Did it surprise you to hear a Roman man characterize Alaric’s wife as a “shrill” woman (p. 125)? What do you think she was really like? How might her personality, for example, have compared or contrasted to Serena, General Stilicho’s wife (p. 149–52)?

16. Discuss the short profile of the farmer of Verona by the poet Claudian, which begins “Happy is the one at home” (p. 130). What does the poem reveal about Rome in Alaric’s day?

17. The Romans were often willing to extend citizenship to non-residents and foreigners as a way to recognize the contributions foreigners made to Roman society. They famously did so three times throughout Rome’s long history, the last of which happened in 212 A.D. under Emperor Caracalla. Yet by 410 A.D., the government adamantly refused to grant any privileges to Alaric or his people, nor did it even recognize them for their service. How do you explain the Romans’ reluctance to do so? What do you think were the factors that prevented Rome’s government from following its own precedents and remaining a “sanctuary for refugees” (p. 5)?

18. Was Alaric’s last attack on Rome, in August of 410 A.D., justified?

19. In the final chapter, we learn that Rodolfo Lanciani, the Italian excavator who did much to create the first archaeological picture of Alaric’s attack, said that he “felt more than ever the vast difference between reading Roman history in books, and studying it from its monuments” (p. 192). Where have you have felt the most in touch with history? Why does this place hold so much power for you?

Stilicho and Alaric

The death of Theodosius left his two sons, the eighteen-year-old Arcadius and the ten-year-old Honorius, as reigning Augusti in Constantinople and Milan respectively (Map 3.3). Thus the political stage was set for other big players to assume the roles which were beyond the capabilities of the youthful emperors. The most powerful figure in the western empire was the general Flavius Stilicho, who had been magister peditum (master of the infantry) at the western court since 391 (Plate 3.5). He had already been marked out for prominence by his marriage in 384 to the emperor's niece Serena, and Ambrose's commemorative oration for Theodosius, a work that had been commissioned by Stilicho, implies that he had been entrusted with the care both of the dying emperor's sons and with the empire itself. 79 The year 395 is sometimes seen as the moment when the eastern and western empires parted ways. However, this will not have been apparent to contemporaries, who were aware that this was a division of responsibilities precisely as favored by Valentinian and Valens in 364. In this case, however, the driving political force came not from the youthful rulers but from the men who dominated their courts and controlled their armies.

Map 3.3 The administrative dioceses of the empire in 395

Plate 3.5 Ivory Diptych of Stilicho, Serena and Eucherius (Monza cathedral) (© 2013 White Images/Scala, Florence)

Stilicho's dominance is to be explained both by the youth of Honorius and by the fact that there was no secure ruling caste in the western part of the empire. In the East there had been more continuity. By 395 Arcadius was almost of an age to rule in his own right, and had grown up in the court that had served Theodosius. The leading figure in 395 was the praetorian prefect Rufinus, but during the same year he was murdered in a political coup. Now the most influential figure in Arcadius' court was the eunuch Eutropius, who had arranged the emperor's marriage to Eudoxia, the daughter of the Frankish general Bauto, who may have been the father of the western warlord Arbogast.

Between East and West a new force had to be taken into the equation. The large band of Gothic warriors that had turned the battle of the Frigidus in favor of Theodosius had suffered enormous casualties, but failed to gain the material rewards that they demanded for their loyalty: gold, grain, and land for settlement. Alaric, now aged in his mid-twenties and married to a sister of the Gothic leader Athaulph, emerged as a major leader after the battle. He had already commanded a Gothic band that had tried to prevent Theodosius passing through Thrace on his return from the West to Constantinople in 391 (Zosimus 4.45, 48). Zosimus reports that he had expected to be rewarded with a command for himself as magister militum (Zosimus 5.5.4). After causing mayhem in Thrace and Macedonia, Alaric now took his Goths east to Constantinople and appears to have struck a deal with Rufinus. In 395&ndash6 Alaric and his men invaded Greece. Athens was ransacked, although a pagan legend, told by Zosimus, implied that the Goths were deterred from attacking the city by visions on the city walls of the goddess Athena and Achilles (Zosimus 5.6.1). The invasion of Greece could be interpreted as a maneuver to forestall Stilicho's advance eastward, or even be a response to moves that Stilicho had already made. 80 Stilicho came to the aid of the Peloponnesians but allowed the Goths to cross over to Epirus, which they occupied.

The rise of Alaric and his followers between 395 and 410 led to the collapse of an important internal frontier, dividing the eastern from the western empire. The Goths were now able to move within the whole of Illyricum from Aquileia and the Julian Alps to Thrace, thus creating a third force in the struggle between East and West. The wider context and purpose of Alaric's activities from this time until the fall of Rome in 410 are hard to clarify, due to the inadequacies of Zosimus' narrative and the partisanship of the only contemporary source, Claudian. Apart from many uncertainties of detail, there is a major issue. Was Alaric the leader of a national movement, the rallying point for the Goths, who had originally settled in Lower Moesia after the battle of Adrianople, and were now in search of more land and better living conditions? Or was he the leader of a substantial group of foederati, fighting in Rome's service, but potentially biddable by the rival rulers of the eastern and western empire, and out for the best terms and conditions that he could obtain for his followers? There is a parallel to be drawn between Alaric's position, and that of the rival Gothic bands led by Theoderic the Amal and Theoderic Strabo in relation to the eastern empire in the 470s and 480s. At both periods, Gothic self-definition, as an independent ethnos or as Roman federate allies, was surely fluid, and must have depended both on the particular circumstances in which they found themselves and on the perspective of the observers of their position. Alaric's followers seem to have been unable to feed themselves from their own produce, and were always dependent on provisions supplied by the Roman authorities. This implies that they possessed no land and argues against the hypothesis that they should be identified with the Goths who had settled after Adrianople in eastern Moesia. 81

From 397 to 405 the only narrative source, Zosimus, says nothing about Alaric. Claudian, the court poet and panegyricist, indicates that he was made general in command of cavalry and infantry (magister utriusque militiae) by the eastern administration in 399. 82 The significance of this position was that Alaric could now legitimately acquire the supplies needed to support his own men through the Roman provisioning system. When the eastern government stopped their supplies in 401 (Jordanes, Get. 146), Alaric and his men moved into northern Italy, where they were held at bay by Stilicho at the battles of Pollentia and Verona during the spring and summer of 402. Stilicho now changed his tactics and began to use the Goths as allies in his aim to secure Illyricum for the western empire. Alaric received the insignia of magister utriusque militiae for Illyricum not from Arcadius but from the western court. The Goths initially occupied territory on the boundary of Dalmatia and Pannonia, but moved back to their former possessions in Epirus, from which they threatened Thessalonica. 83

Stilicho's plans to recover Illyricum with Alaric's help were interrupted in 405/6 by an invasion across the Rhine and the Danube of another Gothic chieftain Radagaisus, at the head of an army of Gauls and Germans, said to number 400,000 men. Stilicho, aided by Alans and Huns as well as thirty regiments of the Roman field army, forced Radagaisus to surrender near Ticinum in Liguria. Many of the barbarians were enslaved, depressing slave prices in Italy, while as many as twelve thousand warriors were enlisted in Roman forces. 84 The inhabitants of Italy and Rome in particular expressed their relief at being saved from this new barbarian invasion. A triumphal arch was dedicated by the Senate and people of Rome, and the prafectus urbi, Pisidius Romulus, erected statues to honor the emperors and Stilicho himself, by whose counsels and fortitude the city had been saved. 85 Stilicho returned in triumph to Ravenna where he received news from Honorius that the western provinces, including Britain, had rebelled under the leadership of a usurper, Constantine III (Zosimus 5.26&ndash7).

The forces of the western empire, which had been unable to prevent the attack of Radagaisus, were also powerless to stop large numbers of barbarians, including Vandals, Suebi, and Pannonians, from crossing the Rhine in late 406 and early 407. 86 Insecurity inevitably led to usurpations. Three uprisings are attested between 406 and 408, headed respectively by Marcus, Gratianus, and finally Flavius Claudius Constantinus. The last of these managed to recover some control of the Rhine frontier and northern Gaul, where the cities of Mainz, Worms, Reims, and Trier had been overrun, and established his residence in Provence at Arles (Zosimus 6.5).

Meanwhile Alaric and his men gave up waiting in Epirus for Stilicho to support their efforts to take control of Illyricum. They returned westwards, attacking northeastern Italy and the province of Noricum, and threatened Stilicho with further incursions if he did not pay the money which had been promised to them during their stay in Epirus. Stilicho consulted the emperor Honorius and the Senate in Rome. The majority of senators voted to attack Alaric, but Stilicho cowed them into honoring their agreement with Gothic leader. His arguments, as reported by Olympiodorus, the source of Zosimus, revealed the role which Alaric had been set up to play:

Alaric had stayed so long in Epirus by arrangement with Honorius, in order to make war on Arcadius and detach Illyricum from the East and add it to the West. This would already have been done if letters from the emperor Honorius had not arrived to prevent his march to the East, in expectation of which Alaric had spent so much time there. (Zosimus 5.29.7&ndash8, trans. Ridley)

The sum required was enormous 4,000 pounds of gold, to be raised from the wealth of the senatorial class at Rome. Quoting Cicero, Lampadius, one of the senators and perhaps identical with the praefectus urbi of 398, observed that such a gesture bought not peace but servitude.

In the spring of 408 news came of the death of the eastern emperor Arcadius. This provoked a dispute between Stilicho and Honorius, both of whom wanted to travel to Constantinople to take control of the succession. Stilicho prevailed, and arranged for Honorius to go west to Gaul to deal with Constantine III, while he and Alaric fulfilled their former ambitions in the East. However, opposition was led by a court official, Olympius, who alleged that Stilicho's real ambition was to set up his own son Eucherius to succeed Arcadius. A violent mutiny broke out at Ticinum among the troops assembled to begin the campaign against Constantine. In an atmosphere of tense uncertainty there was increasing polarization between Roman and barbarian troops. Stilicho decided to treat with Honorius at Ravenna, but was seized and killed by the emperor's guards (Zosimus 5.34). Soldiers loyal to Honorius thereupon perpetrated a massacre of thousands of barbarians who were quartered in Italy, including women and children. Up to thirty thousand of the survivors sought protection and redress by joining Alaric (Zosimus 5.35).

Alaric now had to deal directly with Honorius. He initially made modest financial demands and requested permission to move his army from Noricum into Pannonia, where they would presumably have settled. Honorius, advised by Olympius, his magister officiorum, refused cooperation, and Alaric resolved to march on Rome, bypassing Honorius who was holed up in Ravenna. Through the autumn of 408 Alaric besieged the city of Rome. Serena, Stilicho's widow, was put to death on suspicion that she was ready to betray the city to Alaric. Hunger gripped the inhabitants, and pagan priests even negotiated with Innocentius, bishop of the city, about reviving the old cults in the hope of securing divine protection. Negotiating under duress, the besieged agreed to pay a prodigious quantity of gold, silver, and other precious goods to the Goths to relieve the blockade, and an embassy was sent to Honorius to persuade him to make a peace with Alaric, who would henceforth fight in defense of the Roman Empire. Honorius was again dissuaded from making an agreement by Olympius, who was implacably hostile to any plan that seemed to revive Stilicho's policy of working with Alaric. Instead five legions were summoned from Dalmatia to protect Rome in future. Their commander, Valens, imprudently engaged Alaric in open warfare and lost his whole force.

During 409 abortive peace negotiations were carried out between Iovius, Honorius' praetorian prefect, and Alaric. The latter scaled down his demands to the point that he renounced his claims for an office for himself, and indicated that he would be satisfied with land in the two Norican provinces, which lay exposed to the Danubian frontier and paid little tax to the treasury. He would take any grain that could be made available to his hungry people and dropped his demands for gold. On these modest terms there could be friendship between his people and the Romans. Iovius rejected even these conditions on the grounds that all those who had taken office from Honorius since the fall of Stilicho had sworn an oath never to make peace with Alaric (Zosimus 5.48&ndash51).

Alaric resumed the blockade of Rome, seized the harbor at Ostia, and cut off the food supply from Africa. The Senate at this point, as they had done in 408, yielded to his demands. 87 These included the appointment by Alaric of Priscus Attalus, Honorius' praetorian prefect, to be emperor at Rome. Attalus in turn gave Alaric the military command that he had asked for, the post of magister utriusque militiae. Alaric now besieged Honorius in Ravenna, while Attalus was expected to secure the province of Africa. When the new emperor failed to fulfill his half of the bargain, Alaric stripped him of his position in summer 410. 88 Negotiations were resumed with Honorius, but a renegade Gothic force, led by Sarus, attacked Alaric and led him to abandon his diplomacy and turn on Rome (Zosimus 6.13). The city was captured by assault on August 24, 410, and given over for three days for the Gothic forces to plunder.

Jerome wrote that his morale was broken and he could no longer dictate for weeping, now that the city of Rome, which once had conquered the entire world, was captured (Jerome, ep. 127, 12). Although the episode was to resonate in the contemporary imagination, it offered no solution to Alaric's predicament. After a mere three days, during which the population took refuge in the city's churches and were in large part spared by the Goths, who were themselves Christian, he marched his men south to Campania, but was prevented by a storm which wrecked his fleet from crossing to Sicily, where he hoped no doubt to obtain grain, other supplies, and perhaps land. Returning northwards through Italy he fell ill and died at Consentia in Bruttium in the early months of 411.

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