Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Alaric the Balthing

In January, 395, the great Theodosius died. Owing to the line of the Western emperors having previously come to an end, he was at his death the sovereign of the whole Roman world. His dominions were divided between his two sons; the eldest, Arcadius, becoming emperor of the East, and the younger, Honorius, emperor of the West. They were both mere puppets in the hands of their ministers and favourites, and though Arcadius lived till 408, and Honorius till 423, our story would not lose much if we were never to mention their names again.

The favour shown by Theodosius to the Goths had excited a great deal of jealousy and discontent, which began to be very loudly expressed as soon as he was dead. Some people were foolish enough to demand that the new emperor should dismiss all his Gothic soldiers, and drive the whole nation back again over the Danube. Of course the Government could not attempt to carry out such extravagant proposals as these, but the popular clamour had its effect, and one of the first things that was done in the name of Arcadius was to lower the pay of the Gothic "allies."

This was enough. The Romans had broken their treaty, and in a few weeks nearly all the Visigoths rose in rebellion.

Amongst the many Gothic chiefs employed in the Roman service was a young man not much over twenty years of age, named Alaric, a member of the princely family of the Balthings. Young as he was, he had rendered good service as a military commander; but when he asked for the promotion to which his deeds entitled him, he was refused. He joined the rebels, who at once chose him as their king; and this was the beginning of the renowned Balthing dynasty of the Visigoths.

Led by their brave young king, the Visigoths marched through Macedonia and Thessaly, and entered Greece through the famous pass of Thermopylae. There were no successors of Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans to oppose their progress; the guards who were stationed at the entrance of the pass fled without striking a blow, and Alaric and his host hastened through Phocis and Boeotia, burning villages and carrying away the population as slaves, and were soon encamped before the walls of Athens. The Athenians paid a heavy ransom in money, and invited Alaric to a splendid banquet; and so the Goths departed, leaving the city unhurt. But the other famous cities of Greece, Megara, Argos, Corinth, and Sparta, fell into the hands of the barbarians; the inhabitants were killed or taken captive, and their treasures divided amongst the conquerors.

The great general of Honorius, Stilicho the Vandal, had already set out to meet Alaric with an army; but the government of Constantinople foolishly refused his help. But in the following year (396) they were glad to beg for it of their own accord. Landing at Corinth, Stilicho encountered Alaric in Arcadia, and succeeded in driving him into the mountain region of Pholoe, near the frontiers of Elis. It now seemed as if Alaric's escape was impossible; Stilicho had hemmed him in with a strong line of earthworks, and by turning aside the course of a river had deprived the Gothic camp of its supply of water. The Romans abstained from making any attack, thinking that hunger and thirst would soon compel the Goths either to surrender or to risk a battle in which they were sure to be beaten.

Stilicho felt so sure that he had got Alaric in a trap that he allowed his own soldiers to roam about the country in search of plunder as they liked. But he did not know what a clever adversary he had to deal with. To the amazement of the Romans, Alaric broke through their lines, marched thirty miles away to the north through a difficult country, and had crossed the gulf that divides the Peloponnesus from the mainland before Stilicho could put his forces in marching order. Travellers who are acquainted with the ground say that this march of Alaric's was one of the most wonderful feats of the kind on record. The Roman general was making preparations for pursuit when he received information that the ministers or Arcadius had made a treaty with Alaric, who was then in possession of the province of Epirus. Stilicho therefore returned to Italy without having effected anything by his expedition.

Alaric had driven a hard bargain with the court of Constantinople. He was made military governor of Eastern Illyricum—that is to say, of nearly all the European portion of the eastern empire. The chief use that he made of this command was to set the Government factories to work at making weapons and armour for his own soldiers; and the ministers of Arcadius could, of course, do nothing to prevent him. He remained quiet for three years, arming and drilling his followers, and waiting for the opportunity to make a bold stroke for a wider and more secure dominion.

In the autumn of the year 400, knowing that Stilicho was absent on a campaign in Gaul, Alaric entered Italy. For about a year and a half the Goths ranged almost unresisted over the northern part of the peninsula. The emperor, whose court was then at Milan, made preparations for taking refuge in Gaul; and the walls of Rome were hurriedly repaired in expectation of an attack. On the Easter Sunday of the year 402 (March 19th), the camp of Alaric, near Pollentia, was surprised by Stilicho, who rightly guessed that the Goths would be engaged in worship, and would not imagine their Roman fellow-Christians less observant of the sacred day than themselves. Though unprepared for battle, the barbarians made a desperate stand, but at last they were beaten. The poet Claudian—the only true poet who lived in that dark age—in the poem which he wrote on the deeds of his patron Stilicho, tells us that the wife of Alaric was one of the captives taken, and in words which remind us of a fine passage in the Song of Deborah, describes how, before the battle, she had exulted in the prospect of adorning herself with the jewels of Roman matrons and being served by Roman captive maidens.

But although Stilicho was victorious at Pollentia, and obtained a large quantity of plunder and recovered many thousands of Roman prisoners, the Gothic loss of men does not seem to have been very great. Alaric was able to retreat in good order, and he soon after crossed the Po with the intention of marching against Rome. However, his troops began to desert in large numbers, and he had to change his purpose. In the first place he thought of invading Gaul, but Stilicho overtook him and defeated him heavily at Verona. Alaric himself narrowly escaped capture by the swiftness of his horse. Stilicho, however, was not very anxious for the destruction of Alaric, as he thought he might someday find him a convenient tool in his quarrels with the ministers of Arcadius. So he offered Alaric a handsome bribe to go away from Italy. The king was unwilling to agree, but the chiefs who commanded under him would not allow him to refuse. Finally Alaric accepted the money, and withdrew to Aemona in Illyria.

The departure of the Visigoths was hailed with great joy throughout Italy, and Honorius and Stilicho celebrated (in the year 404) a Triumph in honour of their "victory." An arch which was erected for the occasion bore an inscription proclaiming that "the Gothic nation had been subdued, never to rise again." Six years later Alaric and his Goths had an opportunity of reading these boastful words as they rode through the streets of the conquered capital. After a stay of a few months in Rome, Honorius took up his residence in Ravenna, a city which for centuries afterwards continued to be the favourite abode of the sovereigns of Italy.

Of Alaric we hear little more for four years, but during this interval an important event occurred which belongs to the story of the Goths, though it is not easy to understand the circumstances which gave rise to it. In the year 406, Italy was suddenly overrun by a vast multitude composed of Vandals, Sueves, Burgunds, Alans, and Goths, under the command of a king named Radagais. To what nation this king belonged is not certain, but it seems likely that he was an Ostrogoth from the region of the Black Sea, who had headed a tribe of his countrymen in a revolt against the Huns. The invading host is said to have consisted of two hundred thousand warriors, who were accompanied by their wives and families. These barbarians were heathens, and their manners were so fierce and cruel that the invasion excited far more terror than did that of Alaric. It was commonly affirmed that Radagais had made a vow to burn the imperial city, and to sacrifice the Roman senators to his gods.

Stilicho found it hard work to collect an army capable of opposing this savage horde, and Radagais had got as far as Florence before any resistance was offered to him. But while he was besieging that city, the Roman general came upon him, and by surrounding his army with earthworks, compelled him to surrender. The barbarian king was beheaded, and those of the captives whose lives were spared were sold into slavery.

After this interlude, the second act of the drama of Alaric's life begins in the year 403. Stilicho, who had always had an idea that the Visigoths might sometime be useful for his cherished purpose of humbling the eastern empire, had succeeded in persuading Alaric to enter the service of Honorius, and to undertake a plan for uniting all the Illyrian provinces under the dominion of the emperor of the West. Before the scheme had been completely executed, Stilicho changed his mind, and thought that it had better be put off till a more convenient time. Alaric now made his claim for the promised reward of his services, and Stilicho presented his demands before the Roman senate in a long speech, in which he praised Alaric as a faithful and valuable ally, and showed how dangerous it would be to refuse what he asked for. He also told the senate that the Gothic king had offered his services against the usurper Constantine, a private soldier whom the army had made emperor in Gaul, and whom the forces at the command of Honorius were quite unable to subdue.

The senators were very angry when they were asked to agree to the payment of tribute," as they called it, to a barbarian king. Some of them talked very grandly about letting their houses be burned over their heads rather than consent to such a disgraceful surrender. But Stilicho was still powerful, and after a long and fierce discussion the opposition cooled down. The grant four thousand pounds' weight of silver—was voted with only one dissentient, Lampadius, who walked out of the senate house, telling his colleagues that what they had made was not a treaty of peace, but a contract of slavery.

The contract, however, was never fulfilled. Stilicho's rivals and enemies managed to get the emperor on their side, and in August, 408, the great general, the only able servant Honorius ever had, was murdered by the order of his ungrateful master. After Stilicho was dead, the Romans did not trouble themselves any more about the treaty. Alaric's repeated demands for its fulfillment received no answer, and at last he led his armies into the north of Italy.

The ministers of Honorius now did the most unwise thing that they possibly could have done. They dismissed the Gothic and other barbarian officers from their commands, and passed a law that no Arians or heathens were in future to be allowed to enter the imperial service. The barbarian troops, who were most of them Arians, and had been devoted to Stilicho, were of course thrown into great excitement by the proofs of the ill-will of the government, but did not at first venture to rebel, fearing that the Romans might revenge themselves upon their families. However, the mob of the Italian cities, having got to know that heretics and foreigners were now out of favour, rose and murdered the innocent wives and children of the barbarian soldiers, and looted their property. The result was that thirty thousand men, inflamed with the bitterest hatred, at once deserted from the Roman army and joined that of Alaric.

The march of Alaric over the north of Italy was like a triumphal procession. Without meeting any opposition, he plundered city after city till he came to the neighbourhood of Ravenna. Perhaps his first intention was to besiege the emperor in his own city; but Ravenna was protected by marshes, and Alaric did not think it worthwhile to attempt to capture it. He had a greater prize in view. He marched across the peninsula, and in the beginning of the year 409 his army encamped round the walls of Rome. Alaric was far too sagacious to sacrifice the lives of his soldiers by trying to carry the city by assault. He knew that a population of a million people would soon be starved into surrender, and so he contented himself with intercepting all the supplies of provisions, and waited quietly for the result. As soon as the Romans began to feel the distress caused by the siege, they threw the blame of their misfortunes on Stilicho's widow, who, they said, had sent for Alaric to revenge her husband's death; and without any pretense of a trial the senate ordered her to be strangled. The scarcity of food grew greater from day to day. But though many thousands of the people died of hunger, so that at last there was no room within the walls to bury them, the senate long refused to think of submission. Their hopes were kept up by messengers from Ravenna, who succeeded in entering the city in spite of the Goths, and brought them word that the emperor would soon send an army to raise the siege.

At last it was felt that the famine could be borne no longer, and two envoys of noble rank were sent to Alaric's camp to offer conditions of surrender. They began by trying to show Alaric that it would be prudent in him to grant the Romans honourable terms, for if he refused them the whole population would rise as one man, prepared to die rather than yield. When they were boasting of the enormous numbers of their people, Alaric said, "The thicker the grass, the easier it is to mow!" and burst into a loud laugh at the idea of the townspeople of Rome attempting to fight. The ambassadors were a good deal abashed by this reception of their arguments, and asked what were the terms which he would offer. He replied that he would spare the city on condition of receiving all the gold and silver within the walls, and all the foreign slaves. "What should we have left, then?" said one of the envoys in amazement. "Your lives!" replied the conqueror. The ambassadors had not a word more to say, and returned to tell their fellow citizens that there was no hope of mercy from the cruel Visigoth.

But Alaric only wished to give the Romans a fright: he did not really mean to insist on stripping them of everything they possessed. He succeeded, however, in making them believe he was thoroughly in earnest, and they were very glad when, after some further negotiation, he consented to fix a definite price for their ransom. The contract was a very curious one. Alaric was to receive five thousand pounds weight of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, four thousand silken robes, four thousand robes dyed with the costly Tyrian purple, and four thousand pounds of pepper. It seems odd to read of pepper being mentioned as an article of costly luxury, but it had then to be brought from India at great expense, and was used very freely in Roman cookery, the delights of which the Goths had learned to appreciate.

The price was paid, and Alaric moved his vast army away into Tuscany. He was careful to restrain his followers from committing any acts of rapine, and those Goths who were guilty of insulting Roman citizens were severely punished. The Gothic host was increased in numbers by forty thousand slaves, who had run away from their Roman masters, and by a large body of Goths whom Atawulf, the brother-in-law of Alaric, brought from the banks of the Danube.

Alaric had still no thought of upsetting the western empire. What he and his Visigoths wanted was to found a kingdom of their own under Roman protection. So from his camp in Tuscany he opened negotiations with the court at Ravenna, asking that he should be appointed chief of the Roman armies and should be allowed to settle with his followers in what are now the dominions of Austria. One of the ministers of Honorius, named Jovius, had actually agreed to grant him his demands; but the emperor and his courtiers, who were themselves out of danger at Ravenna, refused to confirm the treaty. Alaric was terribly enraged, and he proceeded to capture the harbour city at the mouth of the Tiber, where the Roman stores of corn were kept, and by the threat of a second famine forced the people of Rome to surrender.

Obeying the orders of their conqueror, the Roman senate declared that Honorius was deposed, and appointed Attalus, the prefect of the city, emperor in his stead. Attalus of course agreed to give Alaric the military rank and the dominions that he asked for. Most of the Italian cities, tired of Honorius, gladly acknowledged the rival emperor, and when, accompanied by the army of Alaric, Attalus approached the gates of Ravenna, the ministers of Honorius offered, in his name, to agree to a division of the empire. Attalus refused this proposal, and demanded that Honorius should at once abdicate and retire into exile.

Honorius was already making preparations for a secret escape to Constantinople, when a quarrel broke out between Alaric and Attalus, who was scheming to make himself independent of the Gothic king. Alaric very quickly put an end to the plans of his puppet emperor. A great assembly of Goths and Romans was called together in a plain near Rimini, at which Attalus was made to appear dressed in the purple robe, and wearing the diadem; these signs of sovereignty were then solemnly taken away from him, and it was proclaimed that he was henceforth reduced to the rank of a private citizen. He seems to have taken his degradation very contentedly, and remained attached to the household of Alaric and his successor, who valued him as a pleasant companion and a skillful musician. How he afterwards again meddled in State affairs, unfortunately for himself, we shall have to mention in a succeeding chapter.

Alaric now sent the diadem and the purple robe of the deposed emperor to Honorius, as a token of his wish for peace and friendship. He renewed his proposals for a treaty, on the same terms as he had previously offered, and marching to within three miles of the gates of Ravenna, encamped there to await an answer. But a body of four thousand veteran soldiers, sent from Constantinople, having entered the city, the ministers of Honorius had recovered from their panic. The Gothic camp was attacked unexpectedly by a small company of men under Sarus, the commander of the Gothic troops in the Roman service; and a herald was sent to proclaim to the Goths that Alaric was the perpetual enemy of the empire.

Instead of making an attack on the strongly fortified Ravenna, Alaric crossed the peninsula and laid siege, for the third time, to Rome. By a midnight attack—on the 24th of August, 410—the Salarian gate was forced (or opened by treachery it is not certain which); and the great city, for the first time since its capture by the Gauls, eight hundred years before, was given up to the plunder of a foreign foe.

We may be sure that many dreadful things were done during the six days that the Gothic army remained in Rome. And yet, terrible as the fate of the city undoubtedly was, it was far less terrible than the Romans had feared far less terrible than the fate which Rome underwent more than once afterwards at the hands of conquerors who called themselves civilized. Alaric remembered that he was a Christian, and he tried to use his victory mercifully. He told his soldiers that the plunder of the city was theirs, but that no man was to be killed who was not in arms; even of the soldiers, all were to be spared who took refuge in the churches of the two great apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul; and all the churches and their property were to be held sacred. But, though Alaric's commands were to some extent obeyed, so that some of the Roman writers speak with wonder of the moderation of the Goths, it was impossible to restrain the furious passions of such a vast multitude of conquerors. The streets, we read, were heaped with dead; men, and women too, were cruelly tortured to make them disclose the places where their wealth was hidden; and many thousands of people were sold into slavery. We cannot wonder at the thrill of horror which this event caused throughout Europe, nor that the Christians everywhere, when they heard the tale, thought that the end of the world was at hand.

Alaric now felt that it was useless any more to think of peace with the empire. Nothing remained but to establish himself as absolute master of Italy. But to do this, it was necessary that he should secure command of the corn supplies which came from the African ports; and when he marched from Rome, it was with the design of conquering the African provinces.

The Goths had reached the southern extremity of Italy, and had made one attempt to cross over into Sicily, which was defeated by the destruction of their fleet in a storm, when their king was taken sick, and died, at the age of only thirty-five years.

With bitter lamentation the Goths bewailed the death of their young hero. They knew that he had left behind him no successor who could carry out his mighty plans, and that the dominion of Italy could never be theirs. But, while they looked forward to forsaking the country, they resolved to make sure that the sepulchre of their beloved king should not be violated by the hands of their enemies. They carried his dead body to the banks of the little river Busento, which flows by the town of Cosenza. They compelled their multitude of prisoners to dig out a new channel for the river, and in its deserted bed they made a grave for their king, burying with him a vast treasure of gold and silver, costly garments, and weapons of war. Then the river was turned back into its former channel, and the captives who had done the work were put to death, so that no Roman should ever know the spot where rested the remains of Alaric, king of the Visigoths.