Alaric the Visigoth


Alaric the Visigoth was the first, but was by no means the worst, of the barbarian chieftains that overran Rome in the fifth century A.D. He was a Gothic prince, born into a tribe that had settled south of the Danube in Roman territory, with the understanding that they would help protect the border, and would provide troops when needed to fight in alliance with the Roman legions. Alaric's first campaign in Italy was in 394 A.D., while serving with the Visigoth army, under Emperor Theodosius. The experience opened Alaric's eyes to the weaknesses of the imperial defenses, and soon after he was declared King of the Visigoths.

Alaric in Athens
Upon gaining command of the Visigoths, Alaric immediately overran Greece. The eastern emperor was too weak to resist him alone, and called upon Stilicho, the general in charge of the Western Empire, to aid him in driving out the Visigoths. Within a year Stilicho had driven Alaric and his followers into the Balkan Mountains, but Alaric escaped. A few years later, due to some complicated intrigues, the eastern emperor elevated his former enemy to master general of Illyricum, a region north of Greece and just across the Adriatic from Italy. It had long been imperial policy to use barbarian forces within their legions, or alongside their legions, but the idea of giving actual command of a strategically important area to an enemy barbarian chieftain, was foolish in the extreme. Soon after gaining the command Alaric used Illyricum as a launching point for an invasion of Italy. He was repulsed by Stilicho, but was not driven completely out of Italy until 403.

During this time there were innumerable intrigues and jealousies between the east and west. Both Honorius in the west, and Arcadius in the east were jealous of Stilicho's influence, and sought to undermine, rather then aid him in his wars against the barbarians. Eventually, Stilicho negotiated a permanent peace with Alaric, which required an outlay of 4000 pounds of gold. The Senate agreed to these terms, but the enemies of Stilicho accused him of treason, and had him executed in 408. Stilicho had been the one man who could stand up to the Visigoths, and when Alaric again marched on Italy, there was no one to resist him. His first blockade of Rome ended when the citizen's agreed to pay 2000 pounds in gold. Alaric retreated but continued negotiations with Honorius, who had moved his court to Ravenna. He hoped for some permanent recognition within the empire of his position, and some territory for his tribe. Honorius, however, was too weak-minded to deal firmly or fairly with him, so as no agreement could be reached, he besieged Rome again. He made terms with the Senate and withdrew a second time, but when these arrangement too broke down, he fell upon Rome for the third time, and this time, on August 34, 410 A.D., entered the city itself. It was the first time in 900 years that an enemy army had entered the Rome. The Visigoths showed considerable restraint in taking the city. Much damage was done, but the Goths professed to be Christians and spared not only the churches, but allowed many of the citizens to take refuge. Eventually they withdrew and prepared to cross over into Africa, but before they could secure a passage Alaric died suddenly of a fever. He was buried along with many of his most precious spoils in the bottom of a river bed.

After the death of Alaric, a Visigoth Kingdom was formed in southern Gaul, where they established their capital at Toulouse. During the fifth century, the Visigoth kingdom expanded to include much of Hispania, and declared after the collapse of the Western Empire. They were eventually defeated by the German Franks and driven out of Gaul, but Hispania remained in Visigoth control until it was overrun by the Saracens in 711.

Key events during the life of Alaric:

Born into a tribe of Goths that had settled south of the Danube, in Roman territory.
Served with the German troops that campaigned with Theodosius against Eugenius in Italy.
Death of emperor Theodosius; troops composed of Goths and rebels chose Alaric as their leader.
Alaric's Goths ravaged Greece.
Driven into the mountains by Stilicho, but escaped.
Due to some intrigues, Eastern Emperor made Alaric master general of Illyricum.
Invaded Italy, but driven back by Stilicho the following year.
After another defeat at Verona, Alaric and his Gothic hordes left Italy.
  Honorius moved court from Rome to Ravenna, recalled legions from Britain; Germans invaded Gaul.
Stilicho negotiated a permanent peace with Alaric.
Stilicho was assassinated for treason; Alaric besieged Rome, but was bribed to go away.
Alaric blockaded Rome for a second time, but again drew back.
After negotiations with Stilicho failed, Alaric invaded Rome, but spared churches and citizens.
Alaric died and was buried with rich spoils in the bed of a river.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Alaric the Goth  in  Stories from German History  by   Florence Aston
Three Deadly Blows  in  Helmet and Spear  by  Alfred J. Church
Sieges of Rome  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Alaric the Visigoth in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Wanderings of the West-Goths  in  The Story of the Middle Ages  by  Samuel B. Harding
Alaric the Bold  in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/soldiers/_back.html
Alaric the Goth  in  Barbarian and Noble  by  Marion Florence Lansing
Barbarians Invade the Roman Empire  in  The Story of Europe  by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Downfall of Rome  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris
Armies of the North  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge
Alaric the Visogoth Besieges Rome  in  European Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Image Links

Alaric at Athens
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

The burial of Alaric in the bed of the river Busento at midnight
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

Alaric Receiving the Presents of the Athenians
 in Greatest Nations - Greece

The Burial of Alaric
 in Greatest Nations - Rome

Alaric in Athens
 in Back Matter

Alaric the Goth
 in Barbarian and Noble

Alaric in Rome
 in Barbarian and Noble

Alaric's Burial
 in Barbarian and Noble

Alaric at Athens
 in European Hero Stories

Short Biography
Theodosius Emperor excommunicated by Ambrose for massacre of civilians at Thessalonia.
Stilicho Roman general who fought off the Visigoths before they overran Rome. Murdered by Emperor Honorius.
Honorius Western Emperor during the Visigoth raids of Alaric. Moved capital to Ravenna. Murdered Stilicho.
Arcadius Eastern emperor; appointed Alaric general of Illyricum after he invaded Greece.
Claudian A poet who recorded the history of the lives of Stilicho and Alaric.