King of the Visigoths (395-410)
Alaric (c.370-410), the
first Germanic leader who stood as a conqueror in the city of Rome, was
probably born about 370 on an island named Peuce (the Fir) at the mouth
of the Danube. He was of noble descent, his father being a scion of the
family of the Balthi or Bold-men, next in dignity among Gothic warriors
to the Amals. He was a Goth and belonged to the western branch of that
nation, or Visigoths--who at the time of his birth were quartered in
the region now known as Bulgaria, having taken refuge on the southern
shore of the Danube from the pursuit of their enemies the Huns.
Alaric's Gothic name, Alhareiks, translates to "temple-king".
In the year 394, he served as a general 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 learned at this time the weakness of the natural defences of Italy on her northeastern frontier, something he later took full advantage of.
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 required 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 in 395, when the capable Theodosius died, leaving the empire to be divided between his incompetent 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 "presents," 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 labour, 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 sacred 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 (modern Bosnia and Croatia). 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.
At this point in history, Alaric was little more than a very troublesome
tribal chief, moreso than most Germanic leaders, but nothing that Stilicho
couldn't handle. What happened next was one of the most disgraceful acts in the
entire history of the Roman Empire, and one that made Alaric so powerful that no
one could stop him.
In August of 408, Stilicho, the chief ministers of his party, and his family were treacherously murdered on the order of Honorius. In the disturbances which followed, the wives and children of the barbarian foederati throughout Italy were murdered as well. These men, 30,000 in all, now turned to Alaric. Raising him on their shields as their king, they begged the Visigothic chief to lead them into battle against the Romans, so that they might have revenge on their cowardly enemies. Alaric accepted them into his army and 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 large 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 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 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. Alaric thus became the first conqueror of Rome in 797 years--the city had not fallen to a non-Roman military force since Brennus and his Celts took it in 387 BC.
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, Ataulf.
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.
Note: Much of this work is taken from the 1910 Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which is a public-domain reference source.