Alaric

(c. 370-410)
   Great Visigothic king and warrior whose sack of the ancient capital city of Rome in 410, following the assassination of his rival Stilicho, profoundly shocked and dismayed the people of the Roman Empire, a shock from which the Western Empire never fully recovered. Alaric's sack of the city was a signal of the declining fortunes of the Western Empire, which finally fell in 476. As king, Alaric revived the challenge the Visigoths had posed for Rome since their entry into the empire in 376 and subsequent stinging defeat of imperial armies at the Battle of Hadrianople, during which the emperor, Valens, died. Ambitious and talented, an Arian Christian who could be most ruthless when necessary, a skilled general who could not achieve a decisive victory over the Romans, Alaric attempted to create a barbarian kingship to rival Roman imperial power and an independent barbarian kingdom in the empire. Although he ultimately failed in his grand design, Alaric's challenge to Roman authorities did set the tone for the way the Romans dealt with other barbarian leaders and the political, military, and territorial arrangements they made with the barbarians in the coming century.
   Born around 370, Alaric is first mentioned in the early 390s, and most likely was involved in Gothic actions in the late 380s. In 376, his fellow tribesmen had entered the empire to avoid the westward movement of the Huns - whose activities also shaped the subsequent history of the Goths - defeated imperial armies, killed the emperor in battle in 378, and signed a treaty with the empire in 382 that Alaric spent his career attempting to undo. Alaric's first appearance was as the king of a mixed band of Goths and allied peoples who crossed the Balkans into Thrace in 391. Alaric's advance was stopped by the recently promoted general, Stilicho. It was the first meeting between the two barbarian leaders and the beginning of a long rivalry between them. Stilicho defeated and encircled Alaric at their first meeting but at the order of the emperor, Theodosius, allowed him to go free. Alaric managed to establish the first independent Gothic kingdom on Roman soil on this occasion and was the first barbarian king to be made a general in the Roman army. In this way Alaric broke with tradition, and the empire established important precedents for its future dealings with other barbarian kings. Despite some gains, Alaric was forced to renew the terms of the treaty of 382, which, among other things, required the Goths to serve the Roman military.
   In 394 Theodosius called on Alaric to honor the terms of the treaty, as he faced the challenge of the usurper, Eugenius, who had been elevated to the imperial throne in the West after the death of Valentinian II. Failed negotiations between the pretender and the emperor led to open warfare, and although he received a subordinate command and directed no Roman troops, Alaric supplied a sizeable contingent to the imperial army and distinguished himself in battle. The usurper was put down, but only after a terrible battle in which many Goths were killed. To many Goths, it appeared that they had been sacrificed by the imperial generals to secure victory over Eugenius and to reduce the power of the Goths. Indeed, the treatment Alaric received led him to revolt, even though he received a high imperial post.
   Alaric's actions were probably motivated by several factors: dissatisfaction over treatment in the suppression of Eugenius; the Hunnish advance in 394-395; and the death of Theodosius in 395, which ended the treaty of 382 because the major party to the treaty dropped out. Of course, the movements of other Goths and the turmoil within the empire allowed Alaric more freedom of action. Whatever the case, he revolted in 395 and spent the next two years on the move throughout the empire. Once again he was opposed by Stilicho, who managed to surround the Goth on occasion but was prohibited from crushing his rival because of imperial restrictions and because of court politics that undermined Stilicho's effectiveness and also threatened his life and position. Alaric plundered Greece during this period, entered into secret negotiations with Stilicho, and, in 397, extracted significant concessions from the empire. He received a new command that gave him regional authority as the magister militum for the region of Illyricum, and he also received important territorial concessions. In this way, the empire set further precedents by incorporating a barbarian people more fully into the administrative structure of the empire and placing authority in the hands of that people's king.
   Turmoil among some of Alaric's fellow Goths, and their desire to emulate his success, led to a Gothic attempt to take Constantinople, which was suppressed with the aid of the Huns and their leader Uldin. Alaric remained aloof from the struggle, but he did not remain quiet long. In 401, while his rival Stilicho was active against a Vandal force, Alaric invaded Italy and threatened the imperial capital of Milan, an action that so dismayed the emperor, Honorius, that he transferred his residence to Ravenna. Stilicho quickly moved to Italy; he met Alaric in battle at Pollentia, where he inflicted serious damage on the Gothic army, though not able to defeat it outright. Alaric was allowed to return to his lands in the east, but for unknown reasons he stopped at Verona in 402. Stilicho struck at Alaric with great force and handed Alaric his worst defeat. And this time Alaric left Italy for his Balkan homelands.
   Having once again escaped destruction, Alaric once again waited for the opportunity to arise to allow him to strike again. It was presented as a result of further turmoil between the Eastern and Western imperial courts and by further pressure from the frontiers. In 404-405, Stilicho fell out with the Eastern authority and may have negotiated with Alaric, making him magister militum of Illyricum again. (Alaric received this rank by 407 and may have held it as early as 405, but the record is unclear.) This was a clear violation of relations between East and West because Illyricum was the possession of the Eastern emperor. Stilicho's difficulties were increased by the invasion of the Gothic king Radagaisus, barbarian invasions over the Rhine, and the appearance of the usurper Constantine in Britain. Although he was able to overcome these threats, Stilicho was forced to attempt reconciliation with the Eastern Roman Empire, and he broke the treaty with the Goths. In 408, Alaric rose up in rebellion, occupying important territories and threatening to invade Italy unless he received payment of 4,000 pounds of gold. Alaric's long-time rival, Stilicho, was willing to grant these demands, but he fell from favor and was executed, along with thousands of barbarians living in Italy.
   The death of Stilicho opened the final chapter in the life of Alaric. The massacre of so many barbarians caused thousands of Stilicho's supporters to join Alaric, who took the opportunity to invade Italy with a substantially larger army. He reached Rome in 409 and camped outside the city until the following year, threatening to sack it unless Emperor Honorius yielded to his demands. But Honorius refused Alaric's offer of alliance in exchange for the grant of a generalship, payments of gold and grain, and land for the troops. Alaric offered a different arrangement in which he would make an alliance in exchange for land and grain. The emperor again refused, and thus Alaric's attempt to prop up an emperor who would meet his demands failed.
   Exasperated with his failure to move Honorius, Alaric ordered the sack of the city on August 24, 410. A Roman noblewoman, according to tradition, opened the city gates for Alaric, and for three days the Goths plundered and burned the city, leaving the churches in peace. The Goths came away with great spoils, including the booty the emperor Titus brought back from the First Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century and Galla Placidia, the sister of the emperor, who was kidnapped by her future husband Ataulf. The sack, the first in 800 years, profoundly shocked the people of the empire, including St. Jerome, who was rendered speechless by the tears he cried, and St. Augustine, who wrote his great work, On the City of God, in response to the sack.
   Alaric, however, did not long enjoy the spoils of his victory. After the sack of the city, he moved south with his armies and attempted to cross to Sicily as a first step toward seizing the grain-producing regions of Africa. His fleet was wrecked, and he then turned north, perhaps with designs on Naples or some other city. Along the way he became ill and died in Bruttium. According to tradition, he was buried in the bed of the Busento River while it was temporarily diverted, and the slaves who buried him were killed so that the whereabouts of the tomb would remain unknown. Alaric was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Ataulf.
   Although he died shortly after his epoch-making sack of the city of Rome, Alaric had a long-lasting impact on the empire. Indeed, the events of 410 profoundly altered the way the Romans, Christian and pagan, saw themselves. The aura of invincibility and permanence associated with Roma aeterna (eternal Rome) had been shattered, and the city suffered further assaults in the course of the fifth century. By the century's end, the Western Roman Empire had disappeared. Alaric also forced the empire to reevaluate its relations with the barbarians and led them to create precedents that affected their dealings with other barbarian tribes that moved into the empire in the coming decades.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Burns, Thomas S. Barbarians within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, ca. 375-425 a.d. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994.
 ♦ Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
 ♦ Lot, Ferdinand. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginning of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
 ♦ --- . The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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