Alaric I was the Christian King of the Visigoths from AD 395 until his death in 410. He emerged on the scene as leader of a motley band of Goths who invaded Thrace in AD 391 but was halted by the half-Vandal Roman general Stilicho. Alaric then joined the Roman army, serving under the Gothic general Gainas. In AD 394, he led a 20,000-strong Gothic army which helped Theodosius subdue the usurper Flavius Eugenius at the Battle of Frigidus. Alaric’s was something of a Pyrrhic victory; he lost a quarter of his troops. To add insult to injury, Theodosius was distinctly unimpressed with Alaric’s contribution to his war effort, so Alaric left the army and was elected reiks (tribal leader or king) of the Visigoths in AD 395. That same year, Theodosius died of heart failure; the empire was divided between his two sons: Flavius Arcadius in the east and Flavius Honorius in the west. Arcadius showed no interest in empire building, while Honorius was still a minor – Theodosius had appointed Flavius Stilicho magister equitum and guardian of Honorius. Honorius cemented the bond by marrying Stilicho’s daughter, Maria. A disappointed and angry Alaric was passed over in his hoped-for permanent command of a Roman army. Alaric was one of those educated and clever Goths who became career Romans, excelling in the Roman military hierarchy, taking sides when necessary, winning all or losing all. Alaric was different, though, because his aspirations to get close to Rome were that much higher than was typical for a barbarian.
Hoping to win his permanent Roman command, Alaric marched on Constantinople with an army which snowballed in size as he progressed, in much the same way as Fritigern’s had before him. But Constantinople was too daunting a challenge and the Romans blocked him anyway. He then moved on Greece, where he sacked the more vulnerable Piraeus and devastated Corinth, Megara, Argos and Sparta. Athens capitulated and was spared devastation. To prevent further death and destruction, Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum in Illyricum. Alaric had finally got the command he craved.
In AD 401, Alaric invaded Italy and laid siege to Milan, but he was later defeated by Stilicho, first at Pollentia (modern Pollenza) and then, accused of violating the treaty signed after Pollentia, at the Battle of Verona the following year. Amongst Stilicho’s prisoners were Alaric’s wife and children, and ten year’s worth of pillaged booty. Honorius moved the western capital from Rome to Ravenna, believing it to be more secure against attacks from the Goths.
Alaric, as it happened, was something of a Romanophile and, as we have seen, entertained hopes of getting closer to the city – militarily and politically. His military command helped him to achieve this. Invasion would assist him further. He even encouraged use of the Latinized name Alaricus. It was because of Alaric’s subsequent invasion that the capital city was transferred from Mediolanum (Milan) to Ravenna (it had been moved from Rome to Mediolanum in AD 286); Legio XX (Valeria Victrix) was recalled from Britannia. Alaric and Stilicho became allies of sorts.
Tensions between Roman west and east had risen sharply: Stilicho proposed using Alaric’s army to realize Honorius’ claim to the prefecture of Illyricum. Alaric, now in Noricum, threatened that he would only refrain from war with Rome if he was paid the extortionate sum of 4,000lb of gold in compensation. The Roman Senate consented to pay, under pressure from Stilicho, who did not want to add to his list of belligerent enemies. There was trouble in Gaul with Constantine, who had crossed the Channel from Britannia, and with the Vandals, Sueves and Alans who had crossed the Rhine and invaded.
In AD 408, Arcadius died after a short illness. Stilicho and Honorius squabbled over who should travel east to settle the succession of the Eastern Empire. There were rumours abroad that Stilicho wanted to place his son, Eucherius, on the eastern throne. When his first wife Maria died, Stilicho insisted that the emperor marry his younger daughter, Thermantia. But Honorius had had enough. Soon after, Olympius, his stooge, provoked a mutiny of the army during which most of Stilicho’s people were killed; Olympius persuaded Honorius that Stilicho was an enemy of the state and was appointed magister officium. Stilicho took refuge in a church in Ravenna but, faithful to Honorius to the end, was arrested and executed; his son was also slain. Honorius inflamed the Roman people to massacre tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman army. Unsurprisingly, this atrocity led to around 30,000 Gothic soldiers defecting to Alaric, joining him on his march on Rome over the Julian Alps to avenge their murdered families. Honorius had rejected Alaric’s demand for a sum of gold and an exchange of prisoners. En route, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and laid waste to the lands along the Adriatic. In September AD 408, Alaric was menancingly encamped ouside the walls of Rome whence he began his siege of the city and blockaded the Tiber. The hunt was on for scapegoats and one of the victims was Stilicho’s widow, Serena, strangled in an act of post-mortem justice.
Alaric’s greatest ally was starvation. It was not long before the Senate capitulated, agreeing in exchange for food to send an envoy to Honorius in Ravenna to urge peace. Alaric agreed, but not before the Senate’s failed attempt to unsettle Alaric; their flaccid threats were met with derision and a loud guffaw when the Goth retorted: ‘The thicker the hay, the easier it’s cut down!’ The Romans eventually agreed a huge ransom of 5,000lb of gold, 30,000lb of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, 3,000 pounds of pepper and 40,000 Gothic slaves. According to Gibbon, ‘the Senate presumed to ask, in modest and suppliant tone, “If such, O king! are your demands, what do you intend to leave us?” “Your lives,” replied the haughty conqueror.’ Prodigious as it may seem, the ransom was probably not beyond the deep pockets of some of Rome’s more affluent senators. They made little contribution – the bill was paid by the official ransacking of pagan temples.
As we have seen, Alaric had hopes of insinuating himself into the Roman political machine and winning land within the Roman borders. The Senate sent envoys, including Pope Innocent I, to Ravenna to encourage the emperor to make a deal with the Goths. Alaric was much more conciliatory this time and went to Ariminum, where he discussed terms with Honorius’ diplomats. He demanded, quite reasonably, the provinces of Rhaetia and Noricum as a homeland for the Visigoths – a strip of territory 200 miles long and 150 miles wide between the Danube and the Gulf of Venice. He also demanded grain and – prize of them all – the rank of magisterium utriusque militae, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army, just as Stilicho had been. Jovius, leader of the imperial delegation, agreed, but predictably, Honorius refused to see the longterm picture and declined. He did not want another barbarian in the imperial hierarchy, and he subsequently tried to infiltrate a unit of Illyrian soldiers into Rome. The army was intercepted by Alaric and, infuriated by these insults, he just as predictably reacted by besieging Rome a second time, this time destroying the Roman granaries at Portus for good measure. Starvation loomed again: the high price of relief this time was permission from the Senate for Alaric to install a rival emperor to Honorius – the Greek Priscus Attalus, prefect of the city (praefectus urbi), something of a star in Rome. Alaric took Galla Placidia, Honorius’ sister, prisoner. Usurpers were always a sure way to concentrate the mind of an emperor.
Alaric had Attalus make him magister utriusque militium, and his brother-in-law Ataulf, who had arrived with reinforcements, was given the rank of comes domesticorum equitum. They then marched on Ravenna to overthrow Honorius and place Attalus on the imperial throne.
Victory was in Alaric’s grasp: Honorius was on the point of surrender when an army from the Eastern Empire arrived to defend Ravenna. Heraclian, who was governor of Africa, turned off Rome’s grain supply, threatening the city with more famine. Jerome rumoured cannibalism within the walls. Alaric wanted to send a modest Gothic force of 500 men to invade Africa and secure food for Rome, but perversely Attalus vetoed this, fearing that the Goths would seize Africa for themselves. Attalus marched on Ravenna with Alaric and succeeded in getting Honorius to propose some form of power-sharing arrangement – a clear indication of the legitimate emperor’s feebleness. Attalus stubbornly insisted that Honorius be deposed and go into exile on an island. This was not in Alaric’s script, so he had the reactionary and ineffective Attalus deposed and reopened negotiations with Honorius.
This time he was confounded by the inconvenient emergence on the scene of the malevolent Gothic general Sarus. He was of the Amalis, a clan which harboured eternal hostility against Alaric’s people. His intervention at this critical juncture may be explained by the possibility that he now felt threatened by Alaric. Sensing duplicity on the part of Honorius, an outraged Alaric thundered south with his army and stormed through the Porta Salaria to threaten the very existence of the city. Some say that Alaric bribed elderly senators inside with the promise of Goth slave boys if they opened the gates to him. In any event, Rome was taken. Jerome lamented: ‘My voice sticks in my throat, and, as I dictate, sobs choke me. The City which had taken the whole world has itself been taken.’ Alaric, a Christian, was busy desecrating a Christian city with his Christian Goths.
It seems that the storming of Rome in AD 410 was not nearly as catastrophic and horrendous as it might have been. Indeed, it goes down as one of the most benign and least destructive of pivotal sackings in history. There are stories of clemency, churches (for example, the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul) being saved; the sparing of those seeking sanctuary therein, even to the extent of escorting holy women there to safety, for example one Marcella, before systematically looting their homes; pots of gold and silver and other liturgical vessels remaining untouched because they ‘belonged to St Peter’; and a matrona appealing successfully to the better nature of a Goth who was on the point of raping her. One nun was given help returning gold and silver, God’s gold and silver, to her church; she had concealed it from the looters. Nevertheless, it was still a disaster of the first order, with three days of unrelenting looting and rapine. Casualties included the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian, where the ashes of many Roman emperors and their families and friends were scattered to the four winds. The Goths also removed a huge silver ciborium weighing 2,025lb, a gift from the Emperor Constantine, from the Lateran Palace. Most of the vandalism occurred around the Salarian Gate, where the old senate house and Gardens of Sallust were wrecked along with the Basilicas Aemilia and Julia.
The taking of movables apart, most of Rome’s magnificent buildings escaped unscathed, in direct contrast to the Gaulish sack of Rome in 390 BC, where only the Capitol survived. So why is it that Alaric’s assault was seemingly so half-hearted and fails to live up to the stereotype we have of Goths running rampage in an orgy of unremitting rape and pillage? We have already noted that Alaric was anxious to ingratiate himself with Rome and win some sort of military and political standing there. Alaric was a civilized man; he acted with restraint and patience time and time again when confounded by events over which he had little control, by a stubborn Honorius and implacable Stilicho. He was astute enough to opt for short-term compromise in his long-term mission to settle the Goths. Alaric sacked Rome reluctantly because he had to satisfy, to some extent at least, the appetite and expectation of his army for booty, but more as a signal to Honorius, hoping that the emperor would install and accommodate him in some capacity or other. He used his assault on the city as a gambling counter, in the belief that Honorius would be persuaded to bring him into his circle by the threat that was posed to his city. Alaric, however, misread the situation completely: Rome was no longer Honorius’ city – Ravenna was. To a pragmatic Honorius, Rome was political history, no longer the powerful hub it had been for centuries. So Alaric got nowhere and Rome was more or less saved from destruction. Alaric had failed: he might possess Rome but he was no nearer winning for himself the inside position within the Roman establishment. He had no permanent imperial command and now he would be excluded from the imperial court forever. Just as importantly, the Goths were still a displaced people with nowhere to go and nowhere to call home. It was not until AD 417 that the Visigoths were able to found an autonomous kingdom of their own within the boundaries of the Western Empire. Alaric’s fervid ambition to find for the Goths a permanent, sustainable homeland was finally realized.
After Rome, Alaric headed into Calabria with designs on invading Africa, the bread-basket of Rome, and of Italy. His plans were thrown into confusion by a storm which smashed his fleet; many of his troops drowned. Alaric himself died soon after in Cosenza. According to Jordanes, his body and some precious spoils were buried under the river bed of the Busento in accordance with the funerary practices of the Visigoths. The stream was temporarily dammed while his grave was dug; the river was then restored to its natural course. The prisoners who did the work were put to death so that the location of the king’s final resting place remained as much a secret as possible. Alaric’s brother-in-law Ataulf succeeded him; he married Honorius’ sister Galla Placidia three years later.
Rome soon responded; there was the same old grain shortages within two years of the sacking and the returning Gallic nobleman Rutilius Namatianus seeing what he described as an ordo renascendi – a brave new world. Two years after the death of Alaric, Ataulf led the Visigoths into south-western Gaul, where, in AD 418, Honorius was forced to recognize their kingdom at Toulouse. In AD 423, Honorius died and was succeeded by Valentinian III, though still a child at the time. The Vandals invaded North Africa, defeated the Romans and, in AD 439, took Carthage, which Genseric, their leader, made his capital. In AD 451, Attila and the Huns, already so powerful that they were paid an annual tribute by Rome, invaded Gaul with the Vandals. They were defeated at the Battle of Châlons by the Visigoths under Flavius Aetius, military commander of the West. In AD 455, on the death of Valentinian III, the Vandals walked into an undefended Rome, which they plundered at liberty for two weeks. If Alaric’s sack was restrained, this was even more so, despite the length of time spent plundering. The Vandals did, though, make off with treasures from the Temple of Peace and lifted the gilded bronze tiles from the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This outrage gives us the word ‘vandalism’. They took Licinia Eudoxia (AD 422–462) and her daughters hostage; she was the Roman empress daughter of Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Her husbands included the Western Emperors Valentinian III and Petronius Maximus.
Rome had held sway in the Mediterranean region for 600 years or so. The city had remained unmolested for 800 years. Alaric’s sacking exposed the Western Roman Empire’s increasing vulnerability and military fragility. The political and cultural shock waves must have been overwhelming to all those who viewed Rome as the Eternal City. Rome was home to the richest senatorial noble families and the centre of their civilized, cultured world; to pagans it was the sacred origin of the empire, and to Christians the seat of the heir of Saint Peter, Pope Innocent I, the leading bishop of the West. Jerome summed it up for many when he asked, ‘If Rome can perish, what can be safe?’ To many Romans, the destruction of their city was seen as divine retribution for rejecting the traditional pagan gods for Christianity. This provided the impetus for Saint Augustine to write The City of God, questioning the role of the pagan gods as history-makers. Non-Christians clung to the belief that Rome had succumbed because the old gods had withdrawn their protection. But Augustine was far from convinced. Where were the gods when the Romans could not break the siege of Veii? Where were the gods when the Gauls sacked Rome under Brennus? These were just two of the leading questions he asked. Orosius too, in his History Against the Pagans, proved that Rome suffered many disasters before the coming of Christ. On a more mundane level, Stilicho’s military failings were also blamed. Perhaps Alaric’s greatest legacy was that he, through the disaster he visited on the city of Rome and on the Romans, was the man who made it possible for the Goths to make history, whereas before they were mere participants in other people’s histories.