Alaric I reigned as the first king of the Visigoths from 395 to 410 AD. After the Battle of Adrianople, a joint force of Goths and Alans captured the land that would become Moesia. He rose to become their leader.

Alaric started his military career as a Gothic soldier under Gainas and eventually enlisted in the Roman army. As an ally of the Roman emperor Theodosius, he  helped fight the Franks and their allies of a potential Roman usurper. Even though he lost thousands of his soldiers, he gained little recognition from Rome. He is regarded as the Visigoth king who reigned in 395 following Theodosius’ demise and the collapse of the Roman legions. As the leader of the only effective field force remaining in the Balkans, he sought Roman legitimacy, but never quite achieving a an acceptable position. 

He fought mostly against the various Western Roman dynasties and advanced into Italy, where he died. He was responsible for the sacking of Rome in 410, one of numerous noteworthy events that contributed to the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.

 

Augustine, La Cité de Dieu (Vol. I). Translation from the Latin by Raoul de Presles: Sack of Rome by Alaric - sacred vessels are brought to a church for safety (2nd of 2 images).
Augustine, La Cité de Dieu (Vol. I)

Early Life

Alaric was said to have been born on Peuce Island at the mouth of the Danube Delta in modern-day Romania. According to Jordanes, he was a noble member of the Balti dynasty of the Thervingian Goths, a 6th-century Roman administrator of Gothic descent who later turned his attention to history.

When the Goths suffered setbacks against the Huns, they mass migrated across the Danube, and fought a war with Rome. Alaric was most likely a little child around this time who grew up along Rome’s periphery. 

Alaric grew up among veterans who had fought at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, who had settled in the Balkans by way of a deal with Theodosius. 

Imperial campaigns against the Visigoths were conducted until a treaty was reached in 382 AD.  This treaty was the first foedus on imperial Roman soil and required these semi-autonomous Germanic tribes, to supply troops for the Roman army in exchange for peace, control of cultivatable land, and freedom from Roman direct administrative control.

During Alaric’s time, there was barely a region along the Roman frontier without Gothic slaves and servants of some sort. Many Goths, like Alaric, were “called up into regular formations of the eastern field army”, while others served as auxiliaries in campaigns led by Theodosius against the western usurpers Magnus Maximus and Eugenius.

 

Rise to Gothic Leadership

The treaty signed in 382 marked the beginning of a new era in the relationship between the Goths and the Roman empire as an increasing number of them rose to aristocratic level through their service in the imperial army. Alaric began his military career under Gainas, and later joined the Roman army. He led a mixed troop of Goths and allies who invaded Thrace in 391 but were repelled by the half-Vandal Roman General Stilicho.

 

Service under Theodosius I

Alaric joined the Roman military in 392, which also happened to be the year that Roman and Gothic warfare ended. At the Battle of Frigidus in 394, he commanded a Gothic force that assisted Emperor Theodosius in ousting the Frankish usurper Arbogast, who was fighting at Eugenius’ command.

Alaric received scant appreciation from the emperor despite the sacrifice of some 10,000 of his soldiers who had fallen victim to Theodosius’ cruel tactical choice to overrun the adversaries front lines employing Gothic foederati. Alaric was one of the select few to survive the drawn-out and violent conflict.

The fact that so many Goths had perished in the Battle of Frigidus River was seen by many Romans as their “win” and victory. Douglas Boin, a recent biographer, makes the assertion that seeing 10,000 of Alaric’s kin dead made him question what kind of ruler Theodosius really was and whether it was best for men like him to stay in direct Roman service. Alaric mutinied and started marching on Constantinople after being denied the award he expected, which included a promotion to the status of magister militum and leadership of regular Roman soldiers.

Theodosius passed away on January 17, 395, from a disease, leaving Stilicho in charge of raising his two young and incapable sons, Arcadius and Honorius.  Modern writers regard Alaric as king of the Visigoths from 395. According to historian Peter Heather, it is not totally apparent from the sources whether Alaric became well-known during the Goth uprising that followed Theodosius’s death or whether he did so earlier, during the conflict with Eugenius. Regardless of the situation, Jordanes wrote that the new king inspired his subjects to “seek a kingdom by their own exertions rather than serve others in idleness.”

 

Action against the Eastern Roman Empire

After Theodosius’s death, the Roman field troops broke down, and his two sons divided the empire once more, with the eastern and western halves going to each. Alaric again rebelled. According to historian Roger Collins, Alaric and his people benefited from the rivalries between the two halves of the Empire fighting for dominance, but simply being called to authority by the Gothic people did not solve the practicalities of their needs for survival. He needed Roman authority in order to be supplied by Roman cities.

The historian Thomas Burns stated that Alaric and his soldiers were enlisted by Rufinus’ Eastern administration in Constantinople to neutralize Stilicho’s threat in Thessaly. No battle was fought. Alaric’s army traveled to Athens along the coast in an effort to pressure the Romans into signing a new peace. According to Claudian, Stilicho’s propagandist, Araric’s troops set off on a course of plundering as far south as the mountainous Peloponnese peninsula. He claims that only Stilicho’s surprise attack with his western field army (which had sailed from Italy) stopped the plundering.

They traveled to Constantinople at the direction of Goth named Gainas, who had sizable Gothic following. Gainas killed Rufinus as soon as he arrived, and Eutropius, the new supreme minister and the sole eunuch consul of Rome, who, according to Zosimus, “controlled Arcadius as if he were sheep,” appointed Gainas magister militum for Thrace. 

 

Copy of an ivory dyptich, likely depicting Stilicho (365-405 CE) with his wife Serena and his son Eucherius, c. 395 CE.
Copy of an ivory dyptich, likely depicting Stilicho (365-405 CE) with his wife Serena and his son Eucherius, c. 395 CE.
Again, Alaric and his men opposed Stilicho as he continued his indecisive campaign against the Eastern Empire after obtaining few more soldiers from the German frontier. Eutropius personally led his troops to victory over some marauding Huns in Asia Minor the following year, in 397. 
 
He strengthened his position by designating Stilicho as public enemy and appointing Alaric as the magister militum per Illyricum.  As result, Alaric gained the right to grain and gold for his followers, and discussion for more long-term settlement were in progress. The apparent betrayal infuriated Stilicho’s supports in Milan, while Eutropius was hailed by a parade through Constantinople for having defeated the “Wolves of the North”. 
 
In the following few years, Alaric’s tribe maintained a low level of activity. However, when Eutropius eventually fell from power, the new Eastern administration felt they could do without Alaric’s assistance and they transferred his province to the West.
 
Alaric’s Roman rank and his right to legally provide for his soldiers were taken away by this administrative change, leaving his army, the only sizable force in the devastated Balkans, as problem for Stilicho.

 

Action against the Western Roman Empire

In the spring of 402 Alaric decided to invade Italy, probably because they were desperate for provisions. Alaric’s attack actually began in late 401, but since Stilicho was in Raetia “dealing with frontier issues” the two did not confront one another  until 402. Alaric’s entry into Italy followed the route identified in the poetry of Claudian, as he crossed the peninsula’s Alpine frontier near the city of Aquileia. For a period of six to nine months, there were reports of Gothic attacks along the northern Italian roads, where Alaric was spotted by Roman townspeople. Along the route on Via Postumia, Alaric first encountered Stilicho.

Two battles were fought. The first, on Easter Sunday in Pollentia, where Stilicho  won a decisive victory, imprisoning Alaric’s wife and children and, more significantly, taking most of the wealth that Alaric had accumulated over the previous five years of plunder. Stilicho offered to free the prisoners while pursuing Alaric’s fleeing soldiers, but he was turned down. Alaric lost the second fight at Verona, where he was again defeated. Alaric offered a truce once more and allowed him to leave Italy. 

A report from the Greek historian Zosimus, written a half-century later, claims that an agreement was reached between Stilicho and Alaric in 405, which implies that Alaric was in “western service at that point,” possibly as a result of agreements made in 402. Alaric remained  In one of the four Pannonian provinces between 404 and 405, where could “play East off against West while potentially threatening both.”

According to historian A.D. Lee, “Alaric’s return to the north-west Balkans brought only temporary respite to Italy, for in 405, another substantial body of Goths and other barbarians, this time from outside the empire, crossed the middle Danube and advanced into northern Italy, where they plundered the countryside and besieged cities and towns” under their leader Radagaisus. Stilicho managed to stifle the threat posed by the tribes under Radagaisus when the latter split his forces into three separate groups.

Stilicho cornered Radagaisus near Florence and starved the invaders into submission. While Stilicho dealt with more challenges from additional barbarians, Alaric was given the codicils of magister militum by Stilicho and was now being supplied by the West.

 

Peintures de Charles-Joseph Natoire présenté au Musée Saint-Loup.
(File:Clovis Tue Alaric 1304349 Natoire.jpg - Wikimedia Commons, 2022)

Second Invasion of Italy

Sometime in 406 and into 407, more large groups of barbarians, led by a common soldier named Constantine and consisting primarily of Vandals, Sueves, and Alans, crossed the Rhine into Gaul, while about the same time a rebellion occurred in Britain. The Roman state was completely unprepared to deal with so many enemies simultaneously, and Stilicho was unable to protect Italy from Alaric. During this crisis in 407, Alaric again marched on Italy, taking a position in Noricum (modern Austria), where he demanded a sum of 4,000 pounds of gold to buy off another full-scale invasion.

The Roman Senate despised the idea of backing Alaric; according to Zosimus, one senator famously exclaimed, “This is not peace, but a pact of servitude.” Stilicho paid Alaric the 4,000 pounds of gold nonetheless. This agreement, sensible in view of the military situation, fatally weakened Stilicho’s standing at Honorius’ court. Twice, Stilicho had allowed Alaric to escape his grasp, and Radagaisus had advanced all the way to the outskirts of Florence.

 

Renewed Hostilities & the Sack of Rome

Arcadius died on May 1, 408 and was succeeded by his son Theodosius II in the East; Stilicho appears to have planned to march to Constantinople and install a regime loyal to himself there. He may also have intended to give Alaric a senior official position and send him against the rebels in Gaul. Before Stilicho could do so, while he was away at Ticinum at the head of a small detachment, a bloody coup against his supporters took place at Honorius’s court. It was led by Honorius’ minister, Olympius. 

Stilicho’s small escort of Goths and Huns was commanded by a Goth, Sarus, whose Gothic troops massacred the Hun contingent in their sleep and then withdrew towards the cities in which their own families were billeted. Stilicho ordered that Sarus’s Goths should not be admitted, but, now without an army, he was forced to flee for sanctuary. Agents of Olympius promised Stilicho his life but instead betrayed and killed him.

Alaric was again declared an enemy of the emperor. Olympius’ men then massacred the families of the federate troops, and the troops defected en masse to Alaric. Many thousands of barbarian auxiliaries, along with their wives and children, joined Alaric in Noricum. The conspirators seem to have let their main army disintegrate and had no policy except hunting down supporters of Stilicho. Italy was left without effective indigenous defense forces thereafter. After the federate troops had defected to Alaric, the population of Italy were left largely defenseless.

As a declared “enemy of the emperor,” Alaric was denied the legitimacy that he needed to collect taxes and hold cities without large garrisons, which he could not afford to detach. He again offered to move his men, this time to Pannonia, in exchange for a modest sum of money and the modest title of Comes, but he was refused because Olympius’s regime regarded him as a supporter of Stilicho. The economic pressure created by this refusal, in addition to Alaric’s own personal ambitions, eventually forced him to march south and occupy the city of Rome in 410. This event marked a significant turning point in the history of Europe, as it was the first time in over 800 years that an outside force had taken control of Rome.

 

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Sources

  • Wikipedia contributors. (2022, November 22). Alaric I. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:04, December 25, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alaric_I&oldid=1123160692
  • Bullenwächter. (2021). World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/image/13335/stilicho-with-his-wife–son/

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