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Alaric

Alaric

Alaric (ca. 370-410) was a leader of the Visigoths who clashed repeatedly with the Roman Empire and led his troops in the sack of Rome in 410.

The Visigoths had been driven from their homeland in central Europe into Roman territory by the attacks of the neighboring Huns. After the Visigoths inflicted a massive defeat on the Eastern Roman army in 378, they were persuaded by the emperor Theodosius I to settle in the Roman province of Lower Moesia (northern Bulgaria) as Roman mercenaries.

Alaric was born near the mouth of the Danube about 370. The Visigothic troops in Roman service chose him as their leader about 390. In 395, dissatisfied by the commands given him, Alaric attacked Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece. In 397 the strongman of the Western Roman Empire, General Flavius Stilicho, sailed to Greece and convinced Alaric to leave there and settle in Epirus.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy for the first time. After a battle with Stilicho in April 402, he was persuaded to withdraw. He returned in 403 and was defeated at Verona, but Stilicho allowed him to escape to the Dalmatia-Pannonia area.

Alaric became restless again in 408 and demanded heavy payments for his services from the emperor Honorius. The fall of Stilicho and the massacre of many families of barbarian mercenaries in Roman service provided Alaric with excuses for attacking Italy. He laid siege to Rome but withdrew on the payment of 5,000 pounds of gold. In 409, when the Emperor refused to meet his renewed demands, Alaric returned to Rome. He set up a rival emperor, Priscus Attalus, but removed him when Attalus began to act too independently.

Alaric was still interested in coming to terms with the Roman government. However, when his camp was treacherously attacked in July 410 by Sarus, a Visigoth loyal to the Emperor, Alaric saw this as an act approved by the imperial government and decided to attack Rome. He entered the city on August 14, and for the first time in 800 years barbarians sacked the city. Although Alaric on the whole spared the holy places, perhaps because the Visigoths were Christians, the population suffered heavily. He carried away numerous captives, including Galla Placidia, the sister of the emperor Honorius.

Alaric moved south, seeking food and land for his people. His ultimate destination appears to have been Africa. He sacked Capua and Nola on the way but failed to take Naples. He reached Rhegium (Reggio Calabria) on the coast, but the fleet that was to carry him to Africa was wrecked. Turning north again, he died at nearby Consentia (Cosenza) in 410 and was buried in the Bucentus (Busento) River.

While his sack of Rome gained Alaric the reputation of a terrible barbarian, he was actually a man who passed most of his life within the imperial system, trying only to profit as much as possible from his own power.

Further Reading

Some ancient sources on Alaric are translated in Colin D. Gordon, The Age of Attila (1960). Still the best accounts in English are J. B. Bury, A History of the Later Roman Empire (1923), and Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders (8 vols., 1880-1899). □

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