When Alaric was born somewhere in Romania around 370, the community of the Visigoths, like that of many other “barbarian” groups bordering the Roman Empire, was under threat by the encroaching might of the Huns. Seeking shelter and protection, the Visigoths eventually managed to gain permission to settle in the Balkan region of the Roman Empire. Yet, settlement came at a price—the Visigoths had to serve as mercenaries in the Roman military and help defend the frontiers. As such, it is no surprise that Alaric joined the Roman army during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395).
When Theodosius died in 395, the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire were once again divided, this time between Theodosius’ two sons. Emperor Arcadius was given control of the east and Emperor Honorius controlled the west. Alaric, who became chief or king of the Visigoths around the same time (either 394 or 395) thought it was the perfect time to renegotiate his people’s agreement with the Romans.
Looking for more land, a grant of citizenship, subsidies, or even just safe passage to Africa, King Alaric led an army of Visigoths first against the Eastern Roman Empire. Alaric had some successes there, but before long, was placated and appeased into ending his campaign. Therefore, he began invading Italy in 401 and received some monetary payments from Rome, but, for the most part, a Roman General named Flavius Stilicho (a man of Vandal blood) was able to keep Alaric contained for years. Alaric even agreed to work with Stilicho as an ally. Nevertheless, Flavius Stilicho was executed by Emperor Honorius in 408.
Even worse for Rome, that very same year, a faction led by a Roman Senator named Olympius massacred countless numbers of “barbarians” living within the Roman Empire. As many of these victims were the families of foreign soldiers-for-hire fighting in Rome’s military, thousands of mercenaries defected to Alaric’s army after the massacre. Inspired by Stilicho’s death and the growing strength of the Visigoth army, Alaric invaded Italy and besieged the city of Rome in 408. The Roman Senate managed to convince Alaric to withdraw after paying him and pledging to help him negotiate his terms with Emperor Honorius. When nothing came of the negotiations, Alaric besieged Rome again in 409, but withdrew after recognizing a sympathetic pretender Emperor named Attalus. Alaric, however, returned to Rome in 410 after Emperor Honorius and the pretender, Attalus, both refused to grant the Visigoths any significant concessions. This time, Alaric broke into the city and pillaged Rome for three days. Although they plundered Rome’s wealth and ravaged the city’s population, the Visigoths were remarkably respectful of Rome’s historic architectural achievements and monuments, leaving most of the city intact. After sacking Rome, Alaric departed the city, hoping to bring his people to North Africa, yet he died from disease near Consentia (modern Concenza) before the year’s end.
According to legend, the Visigoths diverted the natural course of the Busentinus River and built a sepulcher for their fallen king in the exposed riverbed. Using slave labor, a tomb fit for a king was dug and filled with treasure and war trophies. Once Alaric and his spoils were sealed away, the Visigoths allegedly killed all of the slaves who had knowledge of the tomb’s location, and returned the Busentinus to its original course, so that the waters of the river would conceal and protect the resting place of their king.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Alaric entering Athens, illustration, c. 1920s. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations by Norman Davies. New York: Viking (Penguin Group), 2011.