Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Alaric- The Man who Burnt Rome

Alaric was the leader of the Visigoths when they sacked Rome on AD410 and is therefore considered a key figure in Rome’s eventual fall. But who was he, and how did he become so powerful?

He was born on what was probably Roman territory, which would make him a Roman citizen. The territory was the island of Peuce  in the Danube Delta; the island no longer exists, having been destroyed by changes to the distributaries of the river in the middle ages. But the Roman idea was that the empire included the river and Gothland began only north of it.

Alaric’s birth date was somewhere between 370 and 375, probably nearer 370. His father is unknown, but was probably Atharid, a Gothic troop leader and a son of Rothestes. The Gothic troops had entered the empire to back the claim of Procopius, the cousin of the late emperor Julian (d.363) to the throne; to them, the agnate kinship system meant Procopius was rightly the emperor. This system, often used by Germanic kings, meant that the next eldest member of the royal family succeeded, as long as he was male, legitimate, not handicapped and not otherwise barred from succession. Procopius met those criteria.

The usurper Procopius

The defeated Goths lost the ability to have their youth join the Roman army, from which they were unlikely to return to Gothland, and if they did, they’d be at least 42. Valens also closed the riverfront markets which had helped the Gothic economy, and ended the Roman system of gifts, which had ensured loyalty to the Gothic king. This mad policy of Valens was hugely popular in the empire. An oration of Themistius proclaimed in Greek before the emperor (who only spoke Latin) hailed Valens as the first emperor in a hundred years to cut taxes.

This massive destabilisation of the Goths coincided with the arrival of the Huns in Gothland, a backlash against Christianity, which had been introduced in the 350s by Wulfilaz (Ulphilas) and internecine strife.

In April 372, the Gothic Christian Sabbaz (Sabbas)was murdered near the Danube on the orders of Atharidaz (Atharid), a noble (kunja) of the Tervingi tribe, son of Hrothestaz (Rothestes) a sub-king of Athanaric, leader of the Tervingi. Around the same time the other main Gothic leader, Ermaneric of the Greuthungi, killed his Tervingian wife, SvanhildR, because of her alleged adultery with his son. While this story is a mainstay of medieval German romance (and with her being torn apart by horses seems to echo the deaths of Phaedra and Hippolytus in classical myth), it is reported as a contemporary event by Ammianus Marcellinus, where she is called Sunilda. Her brothers later killed Ermaneric. One of them, Sarus, may be the Sarus who later led the Roman army, or his father.

The Huns arrived in Gothland in about 375, so Alaric’s father, Atharid, may be part of the Tervingi already within the Roman Empire by 370, displaced by religious conflict, tribal disputes and the Huns. The death of Sabbas may have been a contract killing rather than strictly religious.

What we get from this is that Alaric was probably born in Roman territory before the Tervingi moved with imperial permission into Moesia in 376. His father, probably Atharid, was probably in exile, and perhaps involved with the emigration of Goths to the city of Adrianople, where they worked as smiths and farmers.

The two rival dynasties were the Amali and the Balthi, the bold ones. Alaric first appears as a leading soldier in 391, which suggests he is unlikely to have had much first hand knowledge of Gothland. He commanded a group of Goths for Theodosius in the Battle of the Frigidus in 394, so he was certainly a Roman officer by then, very young to be commanding troops at the age of 22 or 23. If he was born in 375, as has been suggested, he would have been only 18 or 19. His dynastic prestige may have carried him forward. As his name means ‘all-king’ (Ala-reiks), it is likely that he was the sole surviving member of the Amal royal family.

The Emperor Theodosius I

Throughout his career, Alaric juggled two identities: Roman commander and king of the Visigoths, using whatever worked for him. After Frigidus, he left the Roman Army and was elected head of the Visigoths in the Roman Empire. Left to his own devices, he invaded Greece and sacked Athens in 395, going on to destroy Corinth and Sparta, before the advisors of the eastern emperor Arcadius (who seems to have been of low intelligence and run by his Frankish wife) had him made Magister Militum per Illyricas, based in what is now Serbia. Alaric had received his senior command at the age of at most 25.

The group which Alaric led within the empire was not composed of Goths, nor was it commanded in the Gothic language (his men called him ‘Alaricus’, suggesting he commanded them in Latin, a language all could speak). It wasn’t a people, but an army. The huge distances travelled by the ‘Visigoths’ between AD400 and AD415 could never have been accomplished by a force that could only move at a speed of its womenfolk, children and elderly. The food and fodder required could not have been bought or otherwise obtained for non-combatants.

Roman officers tried to negotiate with Alaric, starting with Rufinus, Master of the Offices in the East (and target of  two vicious poems by Claudian) in 395 before his murder, and then with Stilicho in 401.

The East in 399 had been under the control of the Gothic general Gainas. He seems to have been connected with a Gothic group called the Gaini. There is a reference in the Goth Jordanes’ book Getica to Goths in Britain, and in the Life of Alfred and in charters there was a group called the Gainas in the English Midlands; Alfred married Elswitha, the daughter of one of their aldermen. They may have given their names to Gainsborough, near Lincoln. Gainas had been Alaric’s commander at the Frigidus in 394, and it was the failure of Gainas to reward or promote Alaric that caused the latter to revolt in 395.

In AD400, the eastern Consul, Aurelianus, clashed with Gainas, whose cousin Tribigild was marauding in Asia Minor. Gainas exiled Aurleianus and took over Constantinople. However, Aurelianus, former urban prefect or the city and former praetorian prefect of Orients, was behind the murder of a significant number of Goths in the city. The legend is that 7000 were burnt to death in an Arian church they’d been locked into, although there were no churches that large other than the Hagias Sophia cathedral. Perhaps 700 is nearer the mark. Gainas was away from the city at the time and when he learnt of the massacre, he rebelled and sailed his troops into Asia Minor. Another Visigothic leader, Gravitas, married to a high-ranking Roman, attacked his fleet, sank it and got made Consul of the East in 401.

In 401, Alaric attacked Italy, the first of three times he attempted that. He was blocked by Stilicho, with a pitched battle at the Piedmontese city of Pollentia (modern Pollenzo) in April 402. Rome sent another Germanic general, Rumoridus, who had been in senior command posts since at least AD384, so he would have been quite elderly. He was also a believer of the ancient Germanic gods, so Rome was sending a pagan German to defeat a Christian German. However, Rumoridus was commanding regular imperial troops, not spears for hire as Alaric did. Rumoridus defeated Alaric, kept him out of Italy, and was made consul for 403.

Until Pollentia, the Alaric force had been accumulating wives and dependents, but a lot of them, including Alaric’s wife, were seized and enslaved. Another battle, outside Verona in 403, led Alaric to withdraw from Italy, presumably without their wives and kin. Alaric’s wife was presumably the sister of Athawulf, later king of the Visigoths, who is described widely as Alaric’s brother in law.

The failed invasion of Italy was taken seriously; the imperial capital was moved from Milan to Ravenna in the marshes of the River Po, and Legio XX Valeria Victrix was withdrawn from Britain to consolidate Italy. That would have taken many months to communicate and implement, so it may have been the trigger that led to the collapse of Roman rule in Britain in AD405. The Twentieth Legion had been stationed in Britain since it arrived as part of the invasion force in AD43, 362 years before.

Bearing in mind that Stilicho, the emperors’ uncle (and father in law to Honorius) was half-Germanic and he was consul in 400 and 405, and it does seem that anyone who defeated a Germanic, possibly Gothic leader would be made consul for his pains. Although Stilicho was later claimed as a Vandal, his name (Stilichonas in Greek) sounds more Gothic than Vandal.

The Roman commander Flavius Stilicho

 The most powerful and toughest invasion of the empire was the attack on Italy by the troops of Radigaisus. This was a purely pagan force, intent on killing the Christian elite of Italy, including senators. Rome took six months to drum up enough forces to defeat him. Radigaisus tried to besiege Florence (Florentia), but lost a large number of his troops, fled to nearby Fiesole (Faesulae), abandoned his troops, which were close to mutiny, but was captured and killed by the Romans under Sarus and Uldin, a Hunnic commander (who five years before had cut off the head of Gainas and sent it to Arcadius). His best soldiers were conscripted into the imperial army, yet so many were enslaved that the slavery market collapsed.

Alaric at that time held a Roman command in Illyricum, and sat on his hands while the empire was badly shaken. He was mobilised by Stilicho to push for a Western imperial claim on Illyricum, then stopped in his tracks, with troops to pay. He demanded 4,000 pounds of gold to pay off his troops, and Stilicho agreed to pay this. However, a few months later, Stilicho and his supporters were overthrown and killed, so Alaric invaded Italy and was bought off with 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, rather more than the Romans could have settled for.

He also received 40,000 Gothic slaves, formerly connected with Radigaisus. He sought to have the Senate vote a homeland for his groups in Dalmatia, but Honorius blocked it, so he invaded Italy a second time in AD409. This time, the scared Senators voted that the urban prefect of Rome, Priscus Attalus, should be made emperor.

By AD410 the Romans had run out of Germans to lead their troops, and so the consul of that year was Varanes, a career soldier and from his name, a Persian, which must have caused ripples in the eastern empire. However, Varanes seems to have been loyal and to have helped steady the empire after the murder of Stilicho by Olympius and to have suppressed food riots in Constantinople in 409.

The Sack of Rome in AD410 is justly famous, but less spectacular than it might have been. Alaric again trumped up a grievance and besieged Rome. Alaric had dumped Attalus and sought to negotiate with Honorius, who was in the city at the time, but he escaped and left his sister, Galla Placidia, to her fate, possibly at the behest of Sarus, his Gothic commander and a member of the Amal dynasty.

The Sack of Rome, painting by JN Slyvestre, France 1890

 The Sack was not a random looting, as is often portrayed, such as in this painting by Sylvestre in the late 19th century. Alaric and his troops are portrayed as Redskins out of a Wild West Show, popular at the time. They were of course (excluding Radigaisus’s troops) Christians, disciplined soldiers, and Roman citizens, not half-naked savages.

By the way, the Sylvestre painting looks remarkably like the posed footage of pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad a few years ago.

Pulling Down Saddam Hussain, Baghdad.

 Alaric and his partially Gothic force entered Rome through the recently strengthen Porta Salaria in the north east, next to the Gardens of Sallust. The Redshirts blew that apart in 1870 at the end of the Risorgimento.

The Sack was for three days, and focused on pagan temples. These had been closed by law for over fifteen years. They did contain gold and silver objects and settings of jewels. Clearly the Romans wanted them gone. Theodosius had closed the Temple of Vesta and extinguished the eternal flame in 394. The Altar of Victory, in and out of the Senate building between 364 and 394, vanished forever. In AD405, Stilicho had burnt the Sibylline Oracles, allegedly because they predicted his overthrow. Nor did the Romans much object when the Mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian were looted. But private houses, churches and monasteries were generally left alone. Only the Basilica Aemelia was burnt, something we know because coins dated to AD410 conveniently melted into the floor. The building was fronted by shops, which may have been looted (not necessarily by Alaric) and the wooden roof burnt well too. We saw in the 2011 riots in Britain that opportunist thieves took the opportunity afforded by political riots to rob high street shops.

Shortly after the Sack, word arrived at Rome that the Governor of Africa Proconsularis, a loyalist of Honorius, was blocking the transfer of grain to Portus. With no grain dole, the poor of Rome would riot, so Alaric marched his forces south to Calabria, where he sought to set sail to Carthage to force the required transfer. However, his ships were caught up in a storm off Taranto with many lives lost. He marched back up the peninsula towards Rome, but died at Consentia (Cosenza), an established stopover on the way to the capital. This is described as fever, but it may have been malaria.

The city stands on a plateau and is bounded by the rivers Bucentius (Busento) and Crathis (Crati). We do not know what happened to Alaric. There is a myth – first peddled by Jordanes 140 years after the event – that the Goths moved the Bucentius, with hydraulic engineering skills that no barbarian force could have mustered and that even a crack Roman legion would have baulked at, dug not only the grave of Alaric, but also all the wealth that they had sought for years and spent three days sacking Rome to acquire. They then backfilled everything and killed the slaves used to do all this work.

Entertaining, but pure tosh. It smacks of a Germanic myth. Now, real people such as Ermaneric and (later on) Theodoric were used to form new myths (Theodoric the Amal became ‘Dietrich of Bern’, which was Verona). But this is clearly a mytheme. What happened to the loot? It was probably fenced to Roman thieves for cash. There may too have been some link to the Pietroasele hoard found in Romania in the 1830s. This has been linked to the Gothic ruler Athanaric, a generation before Alaric’s death. Half-remembered legends of one such deposit could readily be retold about another imagined hoard. Likewise the Vinkovci Treasure, found in a fifth century context in Croatia, may have been hidden to prevent someone like Alaric getting their hands on it.

They say that all political careers end in failure. Alaric’s was no different. The future of the Roman Goths lay with his brother in law Athawulf in Gaul and Spain, not in the Balkans and Italy.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Many thanks for your comments and appreciation. Is this something your might retweet to fellow readers? If so, thank you.

    For more on the Goths, Peter Heather (who I used to know) is your way in.