Alaric I (/ˈælərɪk/; Gothic: *Alareiks, "ruler of all"; 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 Goth soldiers
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
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
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,
Flavius Honorius ordered the
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
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
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
1 Early life
2 In Roman service
3 In Greece
4 First invasion of Italy
5 Second invasion of Italy
5.1 Second siege of Rome
5.2 Third siege of Rome
5.3 Death and funeral
7 See also
10 External links
Portrait of Alaric in C. Strahlheim, Das Welttheater, 4. Band,
Frankfurt a.M., 1836
Peuce Island at the mouth of the
Danube Delta in present-day
Romania, Alaric belonged to the noble
Balti dynasty of the Tervingian
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
Theodosius died in 395, leaving the Empire to be divided between his
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.
claimed to be the guardian of Arcadius, causing much rivalry between
the western and eastern courts.
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,
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."
Athens by Ludwig Thiersch, 1894
Alaric struck first at the eastern empire. He marched to the
Constantinople but, finding himself unable to
undertake a siege, retraced his steps westward and then marched
Thessaly and the unguarded pass of
The armies of the eastern empire were occupied with Hunnic incursions
Asia Minor and Syria. Instead, Rufinus attempted to negotiate with
Alaric in person, which only aroused suspicions in
Rufinius was in league with the Goths.
Stilicho now marched east
against Alaric. According to Claudian,
Stilicho was in a position to
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
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
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
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
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
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
produced important results. It caused the imperial residence to be
Milan to Ravenna, and necessitated the withdrawal of
Legio XX Valeria Victrix
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.
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
The Sack of
Rome by the
Visigoths on 24 August 410 by J-N Sylvestre
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
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
Main article: Sack of
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 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
Porta Salaria on the northeast of the city. Rome, for so long
victorious against its enemies, was now at the mercy of its foreign
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
Mausoleum of Augustus and
Castel Sant'Angelo were rifled
and the ashes scattered.
Death and funeral
The burial of Alaric in the bed of the
Busento River. 1895 wood
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.
The chief authorities on the career of Alaric are: the historian
Orosius and the poet Claudian, both contemporary, neither
disinterested; Zosimus, a historian who lived probably about half a
century after Alaric's death; and Jordanes, a Goth who wrote the
history of his nation in 551, basing his work on Cassiodorus's Gothic
History. The legend of Alaric's burial in the Buzita River comes from
^ Wolfram, Herwig (1997). The
Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples.
University of California Press. p. 90.
^ Kelsie B. Harder, Names and their varieties: a collection of essays
in onomastics, American Name Society, University Press of America,
1984, pp. 10-11
^ Settipani, Christian (1993). La Préhistoire des Capétiens,
481-987, Première Partie. Villeneuve d'Ascq. p. Tableau 1.
^ a b Heather, Peter (2006). The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New
History. Pan Books. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-330-49136-5.
^ a b c d e Hodgkin 1911, p. 470.
^ Hodgkin 1911, pp. 470-471.
^ Bayless, William N. (1976). "The Visigothic Invasion of
401". The Classical Journal. 72 (1): 65–67.
^ Brion, Marcel (1930). Alaric the Goth. R. M. McBride & Co.
^ a b c d e f g h i j Hodgkin 1911, p. 471.
^ J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 134
^ Erik Durschmied, From Armageddon to the Fall of Rome, p. 401, ch.
17, 2002, London: Coronet.
^ Hodgkin 1911, pp. 471-472.
^ Hodgkin 1911, p. 472.
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.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Hodgkin, Thomas (1911). "Alaric". In Chisholm,
Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University
Press. pp. 470–472.
Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of
the Barbarians, Oxford University Press (2006)pg.151
Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378 Book XXXI
Kulikowski, Michael (2006). Rome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century
to Alaric. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1139458094. Retrieved
30 November 2014.
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Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
Chapter 30 and Chapter 31.
The Legend of Alaric's Burial
For a modern-day novel exploring the historical sources relating to
Alaric's riverbed grave see Alaric's Gold by Robert Fortune
Alaric I of the Visigoths
Born: 370 Died: 410
Title last held by
King of the Visigoths
ISNI: 0000 0001 2146 2974