Alaric (about AD 370-410), the first Germanic leader to take Rome, was likely born about 370 on an island named Peuce (the Fir) at the mouth of the Danube. He was wellborn, his father kindred to the Balthi or Bold-men, next in worth among Gothic fighters to the Amals. He was a Goth and belonged to the western branch, or Visigoths -- who at the time of his birth dwelt in the land now known as Bulgaria, having fled to the southern shore of the Danube so as not to be followed by their foe, the Huns.
In the year 394 he served as a leader of foederati (Germanic irregular troops under Roman command, organized by their own tribal structures) under the emperor Theodosius I in the campaign in which he crushed the usurper Eugenius. As the battle which terminated this campaign, the Battle of Frigidus, was fought near the passes of the Julian Alps, Alaric probably learnt at this time the weakness of the natural defences of Italy on her northeastern frontier.
The employment of barbarians as foederati, became a common practice with the emperors in the 4th century. The provincial population, crushed under a load of taxation, could no longer furnish soldiers in the numbers needed for the defence of the empire; and on the other hand, the emperors, ever fearful that a brilliantly successful general of Roman extraction might be proclaimed Augustus by his followers, preferred that high military command should be in the hands of a man to whom such an accession of dignity was as yet impossible. But there was obviously a danger that one day a barbarian leader of barbarian troops in the service of the empire might turn his armed force and the skill in war, which he had acquired in that service, against his trembling masters, and without caring to assume the title of Augustus might ravage and ruin the countries which he had undertaken to defend. This danger became a reality when in the year 395 the able and valiant Theodosius died, leaving the empire to be divided between his incapable sons Arcadius and Flavius Augustus Honorius, the former taking the eastern and the latter the western portion, and each under the control of a minister who bitterly hated the minister of the other.
In the shifting of offices which took place at the beginning of the new reigns, Alaric apparently hoped that he would receive one of the great military commands of the empire, and thus instead of being a mere commander of foederati would have under his orders a large part of the imperial legions. This, however, was denied him. His disappointed ambition prompted him to take the step for which his countrymen were longing, for they too were grumbling at the withdrawal of the "gifts", in other words the veiled ransom-money, which for many years they had been accustomed to receive. They raised him on a shield and acclaimed him as a king; leader and followers both resolving (says Jordanes the Gothic historian) "rather to seek new kingdoms by their own work, than to slumber in peaceful subjection to the rule of others."
Alaric struck first at the Eastern Empire. He marched to the neighbourhood of Constantinople, but finding himself unable to undertake the siege of that superbly strong city, he retraced his steps westward and then marched southward through Thessaly and the unguarded pass of Thermopylae into Greece. The details of his campaign are not very clearly stated, and the story is further complicated by the plots and counterplots of Rufinus, chief minister of the Eastern Empire, and Stilicho, the virtual regent of the western empire, and the murder of the former by his rebellious soldiers. With these we have no present concern; it is sufficient to say that Alaric's invasion of Greece lasted two years (395-396), that he ravaged Attica but spared Athens, which at once capitulated to the conqueror, that he penetrated into Peloponnesus and captured its most famous cities, Corinth, Argos, and Sparta, selling many of their inhabitants into slavery. Here, however, his victorious career ended. Stilicho, who had come a second time to the assistance of Arcadius and who was undoubtedly a skilful general, succeeded in shutting up the Goths in the mountains of Pholoe on the borders of Elis and Arcadia. From thence Alaric escaped with difficulty, and not without some suspicion of connivance on the part of Stilicho. He crossed the Corinthian Gulf and marched with the plunder of Greece northwards to Epirus. Next came an astounding transformation. For some mysterious reason, probably connected with the increasing estrangement between the two sections of the empire, the ministers of Arcadius conferred upon Alaric the government of some part--it can hardly have been the whole--of the important prefecture of Illyricum. Here, ruling the Danubian provinces, he was on the confines of the two empires, and, in the words of the poet Claudian, he "sold his alternate oaths to either throne," and made the imperial arsenals prepare the weapons with which to aim his Gothic followers for the next campaign. It was probably in the year 400 (but the dates of these events are rather uncertain) that Alaric made his first invasion of Italy, co-operating with another Gothic chieftain named Radagaisus. Supernatural influences were not wanting to urge him to this great enterprise. Some lines of the Roman poet inform us that he heard a voice proceeding from a holy grove, "Break off all delays, Alaric. This very year thou shalt force the Alpine barrier of Italy; thou shalt penetrate to the city." The prophecy was not at this time fulfilled. After spreading desolation through North Italy and striking terror into the citizens of Pome, Alaric was met by Stilicho at Pollentia, modern-day Piedmont), and the battle which then followed on Easter of 402, (which fell on April 6), was a victory, though a costly one for Rome, and effectually barred the further progress of the barbarians. Alaric was an Arian Christian who trusted to the sanctity of Easter for immunity from attack, and the enemies of Stilicho reproached him for having gained his victory by taking an unfair advantage of the great Christian festival. The wife of Alaric is said to have been taken prisoner after this battle; and there is some reason to suppose that he was hampered in his movements by the presence with his forces of large numbers of women and children, having given to his invasion of Italy the character of a national migration. After another defeat before Verona, Alaric left Italy, probably in 403. He had not indeed "penetrated to the city," but his invasion of Italy had produced important results; it had caused the imperial residence to be transferred from Milan to Ravenna, it had necessitated the withdrawal of the Twentieth Legion from Britain, and it had probably facilitated the great invasion of Vandals, Suevi and Alani into Gaul, by which that province and Spain were lost to the Empire.
We next hear of Alaric as the friend and ally of his late opponent Stilicho. The estrangement between the eastern and western courts had in 407 become so bitter as to threaten civil war, and Stilicho was actually proposing to use the arms of Alaric in order to enforce the claims of Honorius to the prefecture of Illyricum. The death of Arcadius in May 408 caused milder counsels to prevail in the western cabinet, but Alaric, who had actually entered Epirus, demanded in a somewhat threatening manner that if he were thus suddenly bidden to desist from war, he should be paid handsomely for what in modern language would be called the expenses of mobilization. The sum which he named was a large one, 4000 pounds of gold, but under strong pressure from Stilicho the Roman senate consented to promise its payment.
Three months later Stilicho himself and the chief ministers of his party were treacherously slain in pursuance of an order extracted from the timid and jealous Honorius; and in the disturbances which followed the wives and children of the barbarian foederati throughout Italy were slain. The natural consequence was that these men to the number of 30,000 flocked to the camp of Alaric. clamouring to be led against their cowardly enemies. He accordingly crossed the Julian Alps, and in September 408 stood before the walls of Rome (now with no capable general like Stilicho to defend her) and began a strict blockade.
No blood was shed this time; hunger was the weapon on which Alaric relied. When the ambassadors of the Senate in treating for peace tried to terrify him with their hints of what the despairing citizens might accomplish, he gave with a laugh his celebrated answer, "The thicker the hay, the easier mowed!" After much bargaining, the famine-stricken citizens agreed to pay a ransom of more than two thousand pounds in weight of gold, besides precious garments of silk and leather and three thousand pounds of pepper. Thus ended Alaric's first siege of Rome.
At this time, and indeed throughout his career, the Alaric's primary goal was not to pull down the fabric of the empire but to secure for himself, by negotiation with its rulers, a regular and recognized position within its borders. His demands were certainly large---the concession of a block of territory 200 miles long by 150 wide between the Danube and the Gulf of Venice (to be held probably on some terms of nominal dependence on the empire), and the title of commander-in-chief of the imperial army. Yet great as the terms were, the emperor would probably have been well advised to grant them; but Honorius was one of those timid and feeble folk who are equally unable to make either war or peace, and refused to look beyond the question of his own personal safety, guaranteed as it was by the dikes and marshes of Ravenna. As all attempts to conduct a satisfactory negotiation with this emperor failed before his impenetrable stupidity, Alaric, after instituting a second siege and blockade of Rome in 409, came to terms with the senate, and with their consent set up a rival emperor and invested the prefect of the city, a Greek named Priscus Attalus, with the diadem and the purple robe. He, however, proved quite unfit for his high position; he rejected the advice of Alaric and lost in consequence the province of Africa, the granary of Rome, which was defended by the partisans of Honorius. The weapon of famine, formerly in the hand of Alaric, was thus turned against him, and loud in consequence were the murmurs of the Roman populace. Honorius was also greatly strengthened by the arrival of six legions sent from Constantinople to his assistance by his nephew Theodosius II. Alaric therefore cashiered his puppet emperor Attalus after eleven months of ineffectual rule, and once more tried to reopen negotiations with Honorius. These negotiations would probably have succeeded but for the malign influence of another Goth, Sarus, the hereditary enemy of Alaric and his house. When Alaric found himself once more outwitted by the machinations of such a foe, he marched southward and began in deadly earnest his third, his ever-memorable siege of Rome. No defence apparently was possible; there are hints, not well substantiated, of treachery; there is greater probability of surprise. However this may be--for our information at this point of the story is miserably meagre--on August 24, 410 Alaric and his Goths burst in by the Salarian gate on the north-east of the city, and she who was of late the mistress of the world lay at the feet of the barbarians. The Goths showed themselves not absolutely ruthless conquerors. The contemporary ecclesiastics recorded with wonder many instances of their clemency: the Christian churches saved from ravage; protection granted to vast multitudes both of pagans and Christians who took refuge therein; vessels of gold and silver which were found in a private dwelling, spared because they "belonged to St. Peter"; at least one case in which a beautiful Roman matron appealed, not in vain, to the better feelings of the Gothic soldier who attempted her dishonour; but even these exceptional instances show that Rome was not entirely spared those scenes of horror which usually accompany the storming of a besieged city. We do not, however, hear of any damage wrought by fire, save in the case of Sallust's palace, which was situated close to the gate by which the Goths had made their entrance; nor is there any reason to attribute any extensive destruction of the buildings of the city to Alaric and his followers.
His work being done, his fated task, and Alaric having penetrated to the city, nothing remained for him but to die. He marched southwards into Calabria. He desired to invade Africa, which on account of its corn crops was now the key of the position; but his ships were dashed to pieces by a storm in which many of his soldiers perished. He died soon after, probably of fever, and his body was buried under the river-bed of the Busento, the stream being temporarily turned aside from its course while the grave was dug wherein the Gothic chief and some of his most precious spoils were interred. When the work was finished the river was turned back into its usual channel, and the captives by whose hands the labour had been accomplished were put to death that none might learn their secret. He was succeeded in the command of the Gothic army by his brother-in-law, Ataulphus.
Our chief authorities for the career of Alaric are the historian Orosius and the poet Claudian, both strictly contemporary; Zosimus, a somewhat prejudiced pagan historian, who lived probably about half a century after the death of Alaric; and Jordanes, a Goth who wrote the history of his nation in the year 551, basing his work on the earlier history of Cassiodorus (now lost), which was written about 520. (T. II.)
See also: Alaric II
Initial text from 1911 encyclopedia -- Please update as needed