Alaric: The Visigoth King Who Sacked Rome in 410 AD

Alaric I (c. 370-410 AD) was a notable leader of the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that played a significant role in the decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.

In the article below, World History Edu provides some key points about Alaric and his interactions with the Roman Empire:

Early Life and Gothic Background

Born around 370 AD on Peuce Island (present-day Tulcea County, Romania), Alaric belonged to the noble Balti dynasty of the Tervingian Visigoths. This lineage would have given him a privileged status within the Gothic society.

The Visigoths, like many other Germanic tribes of the time, had a complex relationship with the Roman Empire. Before Alaric’s birth, the Goths had sought refuge in the Roman Empire to escape the Huns’ pressure. This led to the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, where the Goths, under Fritigern’s leadership, defeated a Roman army led by Emperor Valens. These events would have shaped the world into which Alaric was born.

How the Romans perceived Alaric and the Goths

Alaric grew up near the edge of the Roman Empire, in areas adjacent to the Danube and the Black Sea. These border regions were often volatile, with a mix of cultures and frequent confrontations between the Roman Empire and various “barbarian” tribes. This environment would have significantly influenced Alaric’s worldview and understanding of the Romans, as he would have seen both cooperation and conflict between the groups.

The Romans, particularly those from the heartlands of the empire, often regarded areas on the periphery as inferior or less civilized. The term “backwater” used here suggests that the Romans saw Alaric’s homeland as an undeveloped, remote, and perhaps even uncultured region. This sentiment would not only have been a reflection of geographical distance but also a cultural and elitist bias.

The Roman poet Ovid, who lived during the early days of the Roman Empire (around the turn of the 1st century AD), shows that this condescending attitude wasn’t new.

First century AD Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the Black Sea region, wrote about the area as a place filled with “barbarians” and viewed it as one of the most remote and undesirable locations in the known world. His sentiments echo the longstanding prejudices of the Roman core towards the peripheries.

Rome’s peace treaty with the Goths in 382

Alaric grew up hearing tales and possibly receiving training from veteran warriors who had participated in the monumental Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD.

Alaric emerged as the leader of a diverse group of Goths and allies that invaded Thrace in 391. They were halted by the Roman General Stilicho, who had Vandal heritage. Despite being dismissed as a minor threat by the Roman poet Claudian, Alaric’s strength and fighting prowess were evident when he stopped Emperor Theodosius from crossing the Hebrus River in the interior of the Balkan peninsula.

The continuous clashes between the Visigoths and the Romans led to a peace agreement in 382 AD. This treaty, referred to as a “foedus”, was a significant milestone as it was the first of its kind on Roman territory.

The treaty established a mutually beneficial arrangement. The Goths were recognized as semi-autonomous allies rather than subjects or enemies. In return for peace and the right to settle and cultivate land without direct Roman interference, the Goths, including the tribe Alaric belonged to, were obligated to supply troops to the Roman military when needed.

Time in the Roman Military

By the time Alaric came of age, the Gothic influence and presence in the Roman Empire were substantial. Whether as enslaved individuals, servants, or soldiers, Goths were dispersed throughout Roman territories. This widespread presence is indicative of the intricate relationship between the Goths and the Romans, characterized by both cooperation and conflict.

Serving in the Roman army would have provided Alaric with military experience and insight into the workings and weaknesses of the Roman military and administrative systems.

Rising tensions with Rome and Alaric’s rebellion against Rome

Undoubtedly, Alaric’s youth and early adulthood would have been marked by the growing tensions between the Goths and the Roman administration. These tensions were often due to broken promises, mistreatment, and the socio-political maneuverings of the Eastern and Western Roman empires.

It’s worth noting that during this period, many Goths had converted to Christianity, albeit to the Arian version, which was deemed heretical by the Roman establishment at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

This difference in religious belief and practice added another layer to the complex relationship between the Goths and the Romans.

In 394, under Emperor Theodosius’ command, Alaric’s Gothic troops played a key role in defeating the Frankish usurper, Arbogast, at the Battle of Frigidus.

However, Theodosius’ strategy led to the death of about 10,000 of Alaric’s men. Despite this significant contribution and sacrifice, the Goths received minimal acknowledgment from the emperor. There were even some Romans that were delighted by the predicament and misery of the Goths.

As a result, Alaric began having second thoughts about the whole endeavor of serving in the Roman army. The Gothic leader registered his dissatisfaction by turning down a commendation and promotion from Theodosius.

He and his lieutenants took the decision to rebel against the Roman Empire, which lost Emperor Theodosius in 395 due to illness. Now known as the king of the Goths, Alaric rallied his people to carve out their own kingdom and free themselves from the rule of Rome.

It was also the case that some leading Roman statesman, including Rufinus, employed the services of Alaric in a power struggle against Stilicho, a renowned Roman general and the husband of Serena who was the niece of Theodosius.

Alaric’s marches on Italy

Alaric’s first invasion of Italy, which took place around 401-403 AD. His forces moved into Italy, challenging the Western Roman Empire’s defenses. He marched down the Italian Peninsula, sacking numerous cities along the way.

The Roman general Stilicho, who had previously halted Alaric in Thrace, emerged as the key Roman commander responsible for dealing with this threat. The two forces met at the Battle of Pollentia in 402 AD. In this confrontation, the Romans, under Stilicho’s leadership, managed to repel Alaric’s forces. This battle was followed by another clash at Verona, which further drove Alaric back.

Facing mounting resistance and with the Roman forces regrouping and putting up a stiffer defense, Alaric decided to withdraw from Italy by 403 AD. However, his retreat was strategic rather than a full defeat, as Alaric remained a significant force to be reckoned with in the subsequent years.

Disappointed by the Roman leadership, especially after the first invasion, Alaric sought recognition and a proper rank within the Roman military. He also aimed to secure provisions and wealth for his people.

Political instability in the Roman Empire, especially with the assassination of Stilicho (the formidable general who had repelled him before) in 408 AD, provided a backdrop for Alaric’s renewed invasion.

Sieges of Rome (408-410 AD) and the eventual fall of the Eternal City to the Gothic army

Perhaps the most famous episode of Alaric’s life is his three sieges of Rome.

Honorius, the Western Roman Emperor during this time, was not an effective leader. He was heavily influenced by his courtiers, leading to inconsistent negotiations with Alaric. The execution of Stilicho and a massacre of thousands of wives and children of Gothic soldiers in the Roman army by Roman citizens (in fear of an insurrection) further deteriorated relations.

Dissatisfied with negotiations with the Roman authorities, Alaric’s forces surrounded and laid a third siege to the city. The final siege culminated in the sack of Rome in 410 AD. The sack of Rome lasted for three days – from August 24 to August 27.

This event was historically significant because Rome had not been taken by a foreign enemy in over 800 years.

Contrary to some portrayals, the sack was relatively restrained; churches were spared, and much of the city’s populace was unharmed.

A number of clerics and Galla Placidia, the sister of Emperor Honorius, were taken prisoner by Alaric prior to Rome’s downfall and traveled with the Visigoths from Italy to Gaul in 412. Upon Alaric’s passing, his successor Ataulf formed a pact with Honorius to wed his sister.

After the sack, Alaric marched his army south to Campania. The Visigoth king’s intention was to head to Sicily in order to secure food and other provisions for his men. It was around this time that he was struck by a terrible illness, most likely fever.

Alaric’s sack of Rome was a very important event in the history of Rome. For starters it marked the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to a foreign enemy. Image: The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890

Death of the Barbarian King

Alaric died in 411 AD a few months after the sack of Rome. He died at Consentia in Bruttium, which is present-day Cosenza, Italy. According to legend, he was buried in the riverbed of the Busento River in southern Italy, with a vast treasure.

The waters were temporarily diverted so that he could be buried in the riverbed, and then they were let back in, covering his tomb. Also the men who worked on the project were executed so as to keep the location of Visigoth king’s grave a secret.

Who succeeded Alaric?

Following Alaric’s death, leadership of the Visigoths passed to his brother-in-law, Ataulf. Under Ataulf’s guidance, the Visigoths relocated from Italy to Gaul, initially settling in the southern region of Aquitaine. Ataulf’s reign marked a change in the Visigoths’ trajectory and their relationship with the Roman Empire.

After Alaric’s death, he was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Ataulf, as the ruler of the Visigoths. Under Ataulf’s leadership, the Visigoths moved out of Italy and headed towards Gaul. They initially settled in the region of Aquitaine in southern Gaul. Image: Athaulf, king of the Visigoths, by Spanish artist Raimundo de Madrazo. 1858. (Museo del Prado, Madrid).

Read More: What happened after the death of Alaric?

What was his legacy?

Alaric’s sack of Rome symbolized the decline of the Western Roman Empire and its vulnerability to external threats. It wasn’t the final blow to the empire, which continued to exist for several more decades, but it was a significant indicator of the shifting power dynamics in Europe. The Visigoths, under Alaric’s leadership, highlighted the weakening strength of Rome and the rising influence of Germanic tribes in shaping the future of the continent.

Alaric’s actions, especially the sack of Rome, would be remembered as a pivotal moment in the transition from the ancient to the medieval world in European history.

Alaric: Fast Facts

Born: circa 370

Place of birth: Peuce Island, Dobruja (present-day Romania)

Died: 411

Place of death: Consentia, Italia, Roman Empire (present-day Cosenza, Italy)

Cause of death: Possibly severe fever

Buried at: Busento River, Calabria, Italy

Reign: 395 – 410

Predecessor: Athanaric

Successor: Ataulf

Religion: Arianism

Best known for: Sacking Rome in 410 AD

Major questions about the life and accomplishments of Visigoth King Alaric

Alaric began his military career under the Gothic soldier Gainas, and later joined the Roman army around 392. Imaginary portrait of Alaric in C. Strahlheim, Das Welttheater, 4. Band, Frankfurt a.M., 1836

Who was Alaric I and which tribe did he lead?

Alaric I was a prominent leader of the Visigoths during the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD. He is best known for his leadership during the sack of Rome in 410 AD, an event that marked the first time in over 800 years that the city fell to a foreign invader.

Who were the Visigoths?

This tribe was one of the two main branches of the Goths, the other being the Ostrogoths. The Goths were a Germanic people who originated in what is now Scandinavia and later migrated southeastwards into the Roman territories. The Visigoths had a complex relationship with the Roman Empire, sometimes serving as mercenaries in the Roman army and at other times being in conflict with the empire. Under Alaric’s leadership, the Visigoths became a significant force that the Romans had to reckon with, especially in the declining years of the Western Roman Empire.

How and why did Alaric serve in the Roman military?

After the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, where the Goths defeated a Roman army, the Romans, under the leadership of Emperor Theodosius, sought to integrate the Goths more closely into the empire. One common practice was to recruit them as “foederati” — allied troops serving under their leaders but fighting on behalf of the Roman Empire.

This arrangement allowed the empire to bolster its military strength using “barbarian” fighters while simultaneously keeping a check on these groups by integrating them into the imperial structure.

Alaric began his military career in the Roman army as a leader of Gothic foederati. It’s likely he saw service in the army as an opportunity for both personal advancement and a way to secure a better position for his people within the Roman political framework.

Also, by serving the Romans, Alaric likely hoped to negotiate better terms for his people, seeking more autonomy or better territories within the empire.

Serving in the Roman legions provided him with firsthand knowledge of Roman military strategies, tactics, and its administrative structures. This experience would later prove invaluable when he led his people in campaigns both alongside and against Roman forces.

How did Alaric shift from Roman ally to Roman foe?

While Alaric began as an ally and servant of the Roman Empire, various factors, including broken promises, mistreatment of the Goths, and his ambitions, led him to turn against Rome eventually. However, even during his campaigns against Rome, Alaric often expressed a desire to work within the Roman system, seeking recognition and status within the empire.

How many times did Alaric lay siege to Rome?

Alaric, the Visigothic leader, laid siege to Rome three times:

In 408, Alaric besieged Rome following the assassination of the Roman general Stilicho, a half-Vandal who had effectively been governing the Western Roman Empire and had maintained a precarious peace with the Visigoths. With Stilicho’s death, the previous agreements with the Visigoths were renounced. In response, Alaric marched to Rome and laid siege to the city. During this siege, the city was not taken, but the Senate was pressured into paying a large ransom to get the Visigoths to leave.

After the initial ransom and the subsequent breakdown in negotiations with the Roman Emperor Honorius, Alaric returned to lay siege to Rome for the second time in 409. This time, the Visigoths managed to forcibly install Priscus Attalus as a puppet emperor, intending to use him to negotiate a favorable settlement for the Visigoths.

The attempts with Priscus Attalus failed to yield the desired results for the Visigoths. In 410 AD, Alaric’s patience wore thin, and he laid siege to Rome for the third time. This siege culminated in the Visigoths breaching the city’s defenses and sacking Rome. It was a significant event in history, marking the first time in over 800 years that Rome had fallen to a foreign invader.

The sack, however, was relatively restrained; Alaric respected Christian sites and ensured the sanctity of many churches.

Why was Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 historically significant?

While the Roman Empire would continue to exist for several more decades (until 476 AD), the sack was a powerful symbol of its decline. It showcased the inability of the Roman leadership to defend its heartland and foreshadowed further calamities and the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.

For many contemporaries, the sack was unthinkable. Rome was not just a city; it was an idea and an emblem of civilization. The event sent shockwaves throughout the empire and the broader Mediterranean world. Christian writers, such as St. Augustine, sought to grapple with the theological implications of the sack, leading him to write “The City of God” in response.

Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 AD emphasized the rising power of Germanic tribes in relation to the waning power of Rome. While many of these tribes, including the Visigoths, had sought integration and a place within the Roman order, the events of 410 underlined the shifting balance of power in their favor.

It is must be noted that Alaric was a Christian leader of a tribe seeking a place within the Roman world. Therefore, he did not seek the destruction of Rome but rather recognition and rights for his people. The sack was as much a result of failed Roman diplomacy and internal Roman politics as it was about “barbarian” aggression. It underscored the blurred lines between the Roman and “barbarian” worlds during this period.

Finally, the sack of Rome in 410 AD is often cited in historical discussions as a precursor to the Middle Ages. It marked the transition from classical antiquity to a new era characterized by feudalism, the migration of peoples, and the rise of new kingdoms on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire.

How and where did Alaric die?

Alaric I died in 410 AD, shortly after he had sacked Rome. The exact circumstances of his death remain somewhat unclear, but it is widely accepted that he died of natural causes. Chroniclers do not mention any assassination, battle wound, or other violent circumstances leading to his death, which lends credence to the notion that his death was sudden and natural.

As for where he died, Alaric passed away in the region of Calabria, in the southern part of Italy. Following his death, a legend arose about his burial. According to the historian Jordanes in his work “Getica,” the Visigoths allegedly diverted the course of the Busento River in Cosenza (a town in Calabria), buried Alaric with his treasures in the riverbed, and then let the river flow back into its original course, thus concealing the grave and the riches within from potential grave robbers.

While this is a dramatic account and is part of the legend surrounding Alaric, it’s difficult to ascertain its historical accuracy.

Burial of Alaric, king of the Visigoths

What legends or stories exist about Alaric’s burial?

The most famous legend surrounding Alaric’s burial comes from the 6th-century historian Jordanes in his work “Getica.” It is a tale filled with drama, reflecting the aura and significance of Alaric’s life and his impact on the Roman world.

According to Jordanes, after Alaric’s death in Cosenza, a town in the Calabria region of Italy, the Visigoths sought to give their leader a burial befitting his stature and achievements. To accomplish this, they temporarily diverted the course of the Busento River.

The Eastern Roman historian goes on to say that the Visigoths created a tomb for Alaric in the dry riverbed. Along with his body, they buried a vast treasure – the spoils from the sack of Rome and other campaigns.

Once Alaric was laid to rest, the waters of the Busento River were allowed to return to their original course, flowing over the burial site. This concealed the tomb from the world, protecting it from potential grave robbers.

To ensure that the exact location of Alaric’s tomb remained a secret, it is said that the slaves who performed the burial work were killed by the Visigoths. This was to prevent them from revealing the tomb’s location later on.

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