Alaric I (Gothic: Alareiks - "supreme chief/ruler"; Latin: Alaricus; 370 (or 375) – 410 AD) was the first King of the Visigoths from 395–410, son (or paternal grandson) of chieftain Rothestes. Alaric is best known for his sack of Rome in 410, which marked a decisive event in the decline of the Roman Empire.
Alaric began his career under the Gothic soldier Gainas and later joined the Roman army. Alaric's first appearance was as the leader of a mixed band of Goths and allied peoples who invaded Thrace in 391 and were stopped by the half-Vandal Roman General Stilicho. In 394 he led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. Despite sacrificing around 10,000 of his men, Alaric received little recognition from the Emperor. Disappointed, he left the army and was elected reiks of the Visigoths in 395, and marched toward Constantinople until he was diverted by Roman forces. He then moved southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus (the port of Athens) and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. As a response, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum ("master of the soldiers") in Illyricum.
In 401 Alaric invaded Italy, but he was defeated by Stilicho at Pollentia (modern Pollenza) on April 6, 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. During Radagaisus' Italian invasion in 406, Alaric remained idle in Illyria. In 408, Western Emperor Flavius Honorius ordered the execution of Stilicho and his family, amid rumours that the general had made a deal with Alaric. Honorius then incited the Roman population to massacre tens of thousands of wives and children of foederati Goths serving in the Roman military. Subsequently, around 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, and joined his march on Rome to avenge their murdered families.
Moving swiftly along Roman roads, Alaric sacked the cities of Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged the lands along the Adriatic Sea. The Visigothic leader thereupon laid siege to Rome in 408. Eventually, the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy. In addition, Alaric forced the Senate to liberate all 40,000 Gothic slaves in Rome. Honorius, however, refused to appoint Alaric as the commander of the Western Roman Army, and in 409 the Visigoths again surrounded Rome. Alaric lifted his blockade after proclaiming Attalus Western Emperor. Attalus appointed him magister utriusque militiae ("master of both services") but refused to allow him to send an army into Africa. Negotiations with Honorius broke down, and Alaric deposed Attalus in the summer of 410, and besieged Rome for the third time. Allies within the capital opened the gates for him on August 24, and for three days his troops sacked the city. Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. Having abandoned a plan to occupy Sicily and North Africa after the destruction of his fleet in a storm, Alaric died as the Visigoths were marching northward.
Born on Peuce Island at the mouth of the Danube Delta in present-day Romania, Alaric belonged to the noble Balti dynasty of the Tervingian Goths. The Goths suffered setbacks against the Huns, made a mass migration across the Danube, and fought a war with Rome. Alaric was probably a child during this period.
In Roman service
During the fourth century, the Roman emperors commonly employed foederati: irregular troops under Roman command, but organized by tribal structures. To spare the provincial populations from excessive taxation and to save money, emperors began to employ units recruited from Germanic tribes. The largest of these contingents was that of the Goths, who in 382 (376 in some sources), had been allowed to settle within the imperial boundaries, keeping a large degree of autonomy.
In 394 Alaric served as a leader of foederati under Theodosius I in the campaign which crushed the usurper Eugenius. As the Battle of the Frigidus, which terminated this campaign, was fought at the passes of the Julian Alps, Alaric probably learned the weakness of Italy's natural defences on its northeastern frontier at the head of the Adriatic Sea.
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 that took place at the beginning of the new reigns, Alaric apparently hoped he would be promoted from a mere commander to the rank of general in one of the regular armies. He was denied the promotion, however. Among the Visigoths settled in Lower Moesia (now part of Bulgaria and Romania), the situation was ripe for rebellion. They had suffered disproportionately great losses at Frigidus. According to rumour, exposing the Visigoths 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 6th-century Roman bureaucrat of Gothic origin who later turned his hand to history, 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."
Alaric struck first at the eastern empire. He marched to the neighborhood of Constantinople but, finding himself unable to undertake a siege, retraced his steps westward and then marched southward through Thessaly and the unguarded pass of Thermopylae into Greece.
The armies of the eastern empire were occupied with Hunnic incursions in Asia Minor and Syria. Instead, Rufinus attempted to negotiate with Alaric in person, which only aroused 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' own soldiers hacked him to death. Power in Constantinople now passed to the eunuch Chamberlain Eutropius.
Rufinus' death and Stilicho's departure gave free rein to Alaric's movements; he ravaged Attica but spared Athens, which capitulated at once 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 Peloponnesus and captured its most famous cities—Corinth, Argos, and Sparta—selling many of their inhabitants into slavery.
Here, however, his victorious career suffered a serious setback. In 397 Stilicho crossed the sea to Greece and succeeded in trapping the Goths in the mountains of Pholoe, on the borders of Elis and Arcadia in the peninsula. From there Alaric escaped with difficulty, and not without some suspicion of connivance by Stilicho, who supposedly had again received orders to depart. Alaric then crossed the Gulf of Corinth and marched with the plunder of Greece northward to Epirus. Here his rampage continued until the eastern government appointed him magister militum per Illyricum, giving him the Roman command he had desired, as well as the authority to resupply his men from the imperial arsenals.
First invasion of Italy
It was probably in 401 that Alaric made his first invasion of Italy, originally with the intention to petition for a position closer to Rome. Alaric had a fascination for the 'golden age' of Rome and insisted on his tribesmen calling him 'Alaricus'. 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 Italy and striking terror into the citizens of Rome, Alaric was met by Stilicho at Pollentia, 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 effectively halted the Goths' progress.
Stilicho's enemies later reproached him for having gained his victory by taking impious advantage of the great Christian festival. Alaric, too, was outwardly a Christian, though an Arian, not Orthodox though he continued to practice the Pagan rituals of his ancestors as well as observing Christian ritual practices. He had trusted to the sanctity of Easter for immunity from attack.
Alaric's wife was reportedly taken prisoner after this battle; it is not unreasonable to suppose that he and his troops were hampered by the presence of large numbers of women and children, which gave his invasion of Italy the character of a human migration.
After another defeat before Verona, Alaric left Italy, probably in 403. He had not "penetrated to the city" but his invasion of Italy had produced important results. It caused the imperial residence to be transferred from Milan to Ravenna, and necessitated the withdrawal of Legio XX Valeria Victrix from Britain.
Second invasion of Italy
Alaric became the friend and ally of his erstwhile opponent, Stilicho. By 407, the estrangement between the eastern and western courts had become so bitter that it threatened civil war. Stilicho actually proposed using Alaric's troops to enforce Honorius' claim to the prefecture of Illyricum. The death of Arcadius in May 408 caused milder counsel 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 requested to desist from war, he should be paid handsomely for what modern language would call 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 and the chief ministers of his party were treacherously slain on Honorius' orders. In the unrest that followed throughout Italy, the wives and children of the foederati were slain. Consequently, these 30,000 men flocked to Alaric's camp, 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 Rome (now with no capable general like Stilicho as a defender) and began a strict blockade.
No blood was shed this time; Alaric relied on hunger as his most powerful weapon. When the ambassadors of the Senate, entreating for peace, tried to intimidate him with hints of what the despairing citizens might accomplish, he laughed and gave 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. Along came 40,000 freed Gothic slaves. Thus ended Alaric's first siege of Rome.
Second siege of Rome
Throughout his career, Alaric's primary goal was not to undermine the Empire, but to secure for himself a regular and recognized position within the Empire's borders. His demands were certainly grand: 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. Immense as his terms were, the emperor would have been well advised to grant them. Honorius, however, refused to see beyond his own safety, guaranteed 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.
Third siege of Rome
Alaric cashiered his ineffectual puppet emperor after eleven months and again tried to reopen negotiations with Honorius. These negotiations might have succeeded had it not been for the influence of another Goth, Sarus, an Amali, and therefore hereditary enemy of Alaric and his house. Alaric, again outwitted by an enemy's machinations, marched southward and in deadly earnest, began his third siege of Rome. Apparently, defence was impossible; there are hints, not well substantiated, of treachery; surprise is a more likely explanation. 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, for so long victorious against its enemies, was now at the mercy of its foreign conquerors.
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 the horrors which usually accompany the storming of a besieged city. Nonetheless, the written sources do not mention damages wrought by fire, save the Gardens of Sallust, 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 Aemilia in the Roman Forum 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 Augustus and Castel Sant'Angelo were rifled and the ashes scattered.
Death and funeral
Alaric, having penetrated the city, marched southwards into Calabria. He desired to invade Africa, which, thanks to its grain, had become the key to holding Italy. But a storm battered his ships into pieces and many of his soldiers drowned. Alaric died soon after in Cosenza, probably of fever, and his body was, according to legend, buried under the riverbed of the Busento in accordance with the pagan practices of the Visigothic people. 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 married Honorius' sister Galla Placidia three years later.