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Alaric I (Alareiks in the original Gothic; Alarik or Alarich in modern Germanic languages; Alaricus in Latin; and Alarico in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish), was likely born about 370 on an island named Peuce at the mouth of the Danube. He was king of the Visigoths from 395–410 and the first Germanic leader to take the city of Romemarker. Having originally desired to settle his people in the Roman Empire, he finally sacked the city, marking the decline of imperial power in the west.

Alaric, whose name means literally "king of all" was well-born, his father kindred to the Balti, a tribe competing with the Amali among Gothic fighters. He belonged to the western Gothic branch, the Visigoths. At the time of his birth the Visigoths dwelt in Bulgariamarker, having fled beyond the wide estuary marshes of the Danube to its southern shore so as not to be followed by their foes from the steppe, the Huns. There is evidence, however, as suggested for example by Peter Heather, that the Huns were not near the Danube until closer to the 5th century; however, there is no doubt that the migration of the Visigoths westward was in response to what was the threat of the Huns. Heather asserts, "Mysterious as the Huns' origins and animating forces may remain, there is no doubt at all that they were behind the strategic revolution that brought the Goths to the Danube in the summer of 376." Moreover, concerning the Huns displacement of the Goths, ancient historian Ammianus Marcellinus concluded, "The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged everywhere with extraordinary fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns." Ammianus Marcellinus was right, it was the Huns who were behind the military revolution that had brought the Tervingi and Greuthungi to the Danube sometime in the late summer or autumn of 376. It now presented Emperor Valens with a huge dilemma- tens of thousands of displaced Goths had suddenly arrived on his borders requesting asylum.

In Roman service

During the fourth century it had become common practice with the Roman emperors to employ foederati: Germanic irregular troops under Roman command but organized by tribal structures. The provincial population, crushed under a load of taxation, could no longer furnish soldiers in the numbers needed for the defense of the empire. Moreover, 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 one to whom such an accession of dignity was impossible. The largest of these contingents was that of the Goths, who had in 382 been allowed to settle within the imperial boundaries with a large degree of autonomy.

In 394 Alaric served as a leader of foederati under Theodosius I in the campaign in which the usurper Eugenius was crushed. As the Battle of the Frigidusmarker, which terminated this campaign, was fought at the passes of the Julian Alpsmarker, Alaric probably learned the weakness of Italy'smarker natural defences on its northeastern frontier at the head of the Adriaticmarker.

Theodosius died in 395, leaving the empire to be divided between his two sons Arcadius and Honorius, the former taking the eastern and the latter the western portion of the empire. Arcadius showed little interest in ruling, leaving most of the actual power to his Praetorian Prefect Rufinus. Honorius was still a minor; as his guardian, Theodosius had appointed the magister militum Stilicho. Stilicho also claimed to be the guardian of Arcadius, causing much rivalry between the western and eastern courts.

According to Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, during the shifting of offices which took place at the beginning of the new reigns, Alaric apparently hoped he would be promoted from the position of a mere commander to a general of one of the regular armies. This was denied him, however. Among the Visigoths, settled in Lower Moesia, the situation was ripe for rebellion. At Frigidus they had suffered disproportionately great losses, according to rumour, exposing them in battle was a convenient way of weakening the Gothic tribes. This, combined with their post-battle rewards, prompted them to raise Alaric “on a shield” and proclaim him king; according to Jordanes (a Gothic historian of varying importance, depending upon who is asked), both the new King and his people decided "rather to seek new kingdoms by their own work, than to slumber in peaceful subjection to the rule of others."

In Greece

Alaric struck first at the eastern empire. He marched to the neighborhood of Constantinoplemarker but, finding himself unable to undertake a siege, retraced his steps westward and then marched southward through Thessaly and the unguarded pass of Thermopylae, famous for the Spartans into Greecemarker.

The armies of the eastern empire were occupied with Hunnic incursions in Asia Minormarker and Syriamarker. Instead Rufinus attempted to negotiate with Alaric in person. The only results were suspicions in Constantinople that Rufinius was in league with the Goths. Stilicho now marched east against Alaric. According to Claudian, Stilicho was in a position to destroy the Goths, when he was ordered by Arcadius to leave Illyricum. Soon after Rufinus was hacked to death by his own soldiers. Power in Constantinople now passed to the eunuch chamberlain Eutropius.

The death of Rufinus and departure of Stilicho gave free rein to Alaric's movements: he ravaged Attica but spared Athens, which at once capitulated to the conqueror. In 396 he wiped out the last remnants of the Mysteries at Eleusis in Attica, ending a tradition of esoteric religious ceremonies that had lasted since the Bronze Age. Then he penetrated into the Peloponnesusmarker and captured its most famous cities—Corinthmarker, Argosmarker, and Sparta—selling many of their inhabitants into slavery.

Here, however, his victorious career suffered a serious setback. In 397 Stilicho crossed by sea to Greece and succeeded in shutting up the Goths in the mountains of Pholoe on the borders of Elis and Arcadiamarker in the peninsula. From there Alaric escaped with difficulty, and not without some suspicion of connivance on the part of Stilicho, who supposedly again had received orders to depart. Alaric then crossed the Gulf of Corinthmarker and marched with the plunder of Greecemarker northwards to Epirus. Here his rampage continued until the eastern government appointed him magister militum per Illyricum, giving him the Roman command he had desired and authority to resupply his men from the imperial arsenals.

First invasion of Italy

It was probably in the year 401 that Alaric made his first invasion of Italy, Supernatural influences were not lacking to urge him to this great enterprise. Some lines of the Roman poet Claudian 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." But the prophecy was not to be fulfilled at this time. After spreading desolation through North Italymarker and striking terror into the citizens of Rome, Alaric was met by Stilicho at Pollentiamarker, today in Piedmont. The battle which followed on April 6 402 (coinciding with Easter), was a victory for Rome, though a costly one. But it effectually barred the further progress of the Goths.

Stilicho's enemies later reproached him for having gained his victory by taking impious advantage of the great Christian festival. Alaric, too, was a Christian, though an Arian, not Orthodox. He had trusted to the sanctity of Easter for immunity from attack.

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, which gave to his invasion of Italy the character of a human migration.

After another defeat before Veronamarker, 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 Milanmarker to Ravennamarker and it had necessitated the withdrawal of Legio XX Valeria Victrix from Britain.

Second invasion of Italy

Alaric became 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 forces 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 court, 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, 4,000 pounds of gold. Under strong pressure from Stilicho the Roman senate consented to promise its payment.

But three months later Stilicho himself and the chief ministers of his party were treacherously slain on the orders of Honorius. In the disturbances that followed, throughout Italy the wives and children of the foederati were slain. The natural consequence of all this 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 led them across the Julian Alps and, in September 408, stood before the walls of Romemarker (now with no capable general like Stilicho as a defender) 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 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. Thus ended Alaric's first siege of Rome.

Second siege of Rome

At this time, and indeed throughout his career, 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—but, great as these terms were, the emperor would probably have been well advised to grant them. Honorius, however, 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, Alaric, after instituting a second siege and blockade of Rome in 409, came to terms with the senate. With their consent he set up a rival emperor, the prefect of the city, a Greek named Priscus Attalus.

Attalus, 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 to his assistance from Constantinople by his nephew Theodosius II.

Third siege of Rome

Alaric therefore cashiered his puppet emperor, after the latter's 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, an Amali and therefore a 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 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 meagre—on August 24 410, Alaric and his Visigoths burst in by the Porta Salaria on the northeast of the city. Rome, which had for so long defeated its enemies, now lay at the feet of foreign enemies.

The contemporary ecclesiastics recorded with wonder many instances of the Visigoths' clemency: 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 dishonor. 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. Nonetheless, the written sources do not tell of any damage wrought by fire, save in the case of the Gardens of Sallustmarker, which were 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. The Basilica Aemiliamarker in the Roman Forummarker did burn down, which perhaps can be attributed to Alaric: the archaeological evidence was provided by coins dating from 410 found melted in the floor. The pagan emperors tombs of the Mausoleum of Augustusmarker and Castel Sant'Angelomarker were rifled and the ashes scattered.

Death and funeral

Alaric, having penetrated to the city, marched southwards into Calabria. He desired to invade Africa, which on account of its grain was now the key to holding Italy firmly, but his ships were dashed to pieces by a storm in which many of his soldiers perished. He died soon afterward in Cosenzamarker, probably of fever, at the early age of about forty (assuming again, a birth around 375), and his body was, according to legend, buried under the riverbed of the Busento. The stream was 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 labor had been accomplished were put to death that none might learn their secret.

Alaric was succeeded in the command of the Gothic army by his brother-in-law, Ataulf, who three years later married Honorius'sister Galla Placidia.


Our chief authorities for the career of Alaric are four: the historian Orosius and the poet Claudian, both contemporary, neither disinterested; 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 Trojan War. It is from Jordanes comes the legend of Alaric burial in the Buzita River.

See also



  • Henry Bradley, The Goths: from the Earliest Times to the End of the Gothic Dominion in Spain, chapter 10. Second edition, 1883, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Erik Durschmied, From Armageddon to the Fall of Rome, chapter 17. 2002, London: Coronet.
  • Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, Oxford University Press (2006)pg.151
  • Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378 Book XXXI

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