Alaric Trashes Rome -- 410 AD: Rome was sacked many time in its history, from 390 BC when Rome's famous geese saved only the Capitoline fortress from the general destruction by the Gauls  until German mercenaries under the command of a Parisian renegade (nominally part of the army of Charles V) did it the last time in 1527 AD (

One of the more interesting of these destructions (in Latin it meant "unbuilding") occurred when Alaric arrived in 410 AD. What was so special about this sack was that Alaric had been trained for the job by Stilicho, the very general who initially opposed him. Stilicho might have finally defeated Alaric if not for the stupidity of the Emperor and then the sudden and uncharacteristic bravado of the Senate, who, instead of sending General Stilicho to the front, conspired in his execution.

The long prelude:
We have to go back forty or so years to understand how all of this happened. For decades in the fourth century, there had been intermittent battles for control of sections of north-central Europe between the Romans and the Visigoths. The Visigoths at that time had only a tribal organization, and leaders of rival tribes vied for power. By about 370 AD, two factions had emerged, one under Athanaric and the second under Fritigern. Athanaric was winning, and eventually Fritigern had to get help from the Romans. In effect, his forces became Roman auxiliaries in return for protection.

Soon, however, a new menace appeared: Huns overran the Visigoth territories in about 375 AD. Athanaric retired to Transylvania, and the majority of the Visigoths joined Fritigern, who now had useful Empire connections, and fled, in 376, across the Danube River into the Eastern Roman Empire. Fritigern also led his men into Arian Christianity to make their move more palatable to the eastern Emperor, Valens, who was himself an Arian.

But things soon got dicey in the Visigoths' new homeland, mostly because of high taxes and oppressive measures instituted by corrupt Byzantine/Roman officials. For centuries, and in both ends of the Empire, there had been a pervasive atmosphere of prejudice and discrimination against northern "barbarians". They were easily recognizable: they were tall, blond, blue eyed, bearded ("barba" meant beard in Latin), speaking course Germanic languages ("barbar" was also perhaps onomatopoeic, for barbarian mutterings). Worst of all, they dressed funny, wearing pants and shoes with stockings instead of respectable Roman tunics and sandals. Northern barbarians had always been the butt of Roman ethnic jokes -- think of "blond jokes" and where they might have come from. Many Romans, and especially those of purer upper-class Italian and Greek ethnic stock who had been recruited into provincial civilian and military officialdom, thought that northern barbarians, including Visigoths, were not very bright and that they would, therefore, be easy marks for various semi-official swindles.

This, of course, was a mistake. In short order, the Visigoth settlers rose in revolt. Valens set out with legions to put them back in their place, but at Adrianople in 378, the Visigoths won a decisive victory. Valens was wounded in the battle and took refuge in a tower on a nearby farm. A few hours later, Visigoth cavalry found and burned the tower. Valens was ashes and thus joined the two-thirds of his army that had been slain in the battle. The Visigoths then swept across the upper Balkan Peninsula and ravaged Thrace. The first Theodosius was next on the imperial throne, and he immediately took up arms against the Visigoths. In 382 peace was finally negotiated, and the Goths under Fritigern were settled in Thrace -- their earlier seizure of that territory was thus officially recognized by the empire. Friction, however, continued.

Yes, we finally get to Alaric. Alaric came from one of the leading "royal" families of the Visigoths, and some sources even say he was a son of Fritigern -- leading tribal leaders spread their seed to cement their tribal federations. Like other tribal princes from all over the empire, Alaric was brought to Constantinople to attend the new military academy that Theodosius had established. The students, also part hostages, were indoctrinated and hopefully converted to the Roman/Byzantine way of thinking. He must have been a good student. After graduation, he quickly rose through the ranks, and, by 392 AD, was leading more than 20,000 Visigothic "foederatae" (troops recruited from tribes federated with Rome) at the Battle of the River Frigidus.

At Frigidus, Alaric was under the command of Theodosius's top general and theater commander, Flavius Stilicho, and they were facing another Roman army led by a renegade general named Arbogast. Alaric's troops led the attack on two successive days and finally won the battle for Stilicho. More than half of the Visigoths died in the repeated frontal attacks Stilicho ordered, and Alaric left the field with the distinct suspicion that Stilicho, who until then had been his mentor, was trying to expend Visigoth troops as quickly as possible.

Despite his suspicions, Alaric continued to serve the Empire faithfully until Theodosius died in 395. Fritigern had died in 380 and, although he didn't have the title, Alaric was the ruler of the Visigoths by virtue of his command of the largest Visigothic army -- the remaining 10,000 foederatae and new recruits. When Theodosius died, Alaric led his troops away, and the Visigoths were once again an "enemy" rather than a "federated" tribal group. There were, of course, rumors that Alaric was in cahoots with Eastern Empire rivals of Stilicho, who, it was said, played on Alaric's suspicions of his former boss. Stilicho gave chase as Alaric plundered through the Northern Balkans and eventually chased him out of the Eastern Empire and into the West, missing, en route, at least one good opportunity to capture him.

Stilicho, also, in the meanwhile, and in accordance with the will of Theodosius, became the guardian, protector, and top general of Honorius, a twelve-year-old son of Theodosius, whom Theodosius had set up as puppet emperor in the West. Stilicho was to be, for a few years, the puppet-master. And that's how it came about that Stilicho headed off to Rome, and, when Alaric menaced the Italian Peninsula, it was Stilicho who led the forces of the Western Empire to intercept his former protégé.

Stilicho decisively beat Alaric at the Battle of Pollentia on Easter Sunday, 402 AD, but Alaric again slipped away as he had done during the pursuit in the east. Stilicho won another great battle against Alaric at Verona the next year, but Alaric got away yet again. A pattern was evolving which provoked rumors that Stilicho purposely was allowing Alaric to escape, and even more scandalous rumors circulated that they had been lovers in early days. Modern historians discount the latter completely -- no evidence adduced -- but they still worry about the apparent ease of Alaric's escapes. Stilicho soldiered on, keeping the Visigoths at bay, repulsing the northern wing of the Vandals, who crossed the frozen Rhine River in 407, containing a revolt in England led by Constantine III.

Late in 407, Alaric again appears to have allied himself with Rome to participate in Stilicho's projected expedition to the far borders of the Eastern Empire. Some modern historians interpret this as a Stilicho plan to get the Visigoths as far away as possible from northern Italy, but other events intervened.

Everyone knew that "those horrible northern barbarians" had caused most of Rome's troubles, and "anti-blond" racism and discrimination became rampant in the Western Empire. Wives and children of some Visigoth soldiers, officers, and noblemen, who until then had been faithful to Rome, were murdered in Italian-led pogroms. Visigoths fled en masse to Alaric's protection, making Alaric's forces all the stronger. Only Stilicho could save the day.

Stilicho, ever the realist, went to the Senate and asked for money to buy off Alaric. The Senate responded with anti-Visigoth polemics and personal attacks on Stilicho. Hadn't he purposely allowed Alaric's repeated escapes? And weren't Stilicho and Alaric even now planning joint conquests in the east? Why was Stilicho trying to enrich Alaric? Wasn't Stilicho half barbarian himself? (True.) Why should Rome pay tribute to blond, blue-eyed Barbarians -- even if they had an overwhelmingly superior force?

And in Ravenna, Stilicho's rivals in the Court of Honorius (now removed to the north) were busy convincing Honorius that Stilicho was plotting a coup that would put Stilicho's own son, Eucherius, on the Imperial throne. Honorius, who had never been noted for his mental acuity, believed the story and signed a warrant for Stilicho's arrest. It was served on Stilicho in a churchyard in Ravenna. With his troops far away and with popular sentiment turning against him, he took sanctuary in the church. He came out again after receiving assurances of a trial after which he would keep his head. But the local commander had lied and Stilicho was decapitated without trial on August 22, 408 AD.

So now we have a greatly expanded (and very angry) Visigoth army on the loose in Italy, and the only Roman general capable of opposing them is headless in Ravenna. The predictable result was that a few months later Alaric's long siege of Rome began. The Senate now offered to buy off the Visigoths with gold, silver, and food, the last of which, of course, would have to be provided from outside Rome, probably by Honorius. Alaric withdrew for a while after receiving the Senate promises (and some gold and silver), but Honorius, well fed in Ravenna, was not susceptible to the pleas of the starving (some accounts say eventually cannibalistic) Romans. All deals fell through, and Alaric renewed the siege. Finally, on August 24, 410, someone opened the Salaria Gate (now the Pincian Gate at the end of Via Venetto), and Alaric's Visigoths poured through.

The Sack -- the shortest part of the story:
The Visigoths were also pretty famished after camping for more than eighteen months in what later became the Villa Borghese Park, so they only pillaged for three days before they left in search of food. During the sack, most unresisting persons were spared from the sword. Many were nominally enslaved, but the selling price of slaves plunged so low that most quickly bought themselves and friends out of servitude: the Visigoths wanted whatever cash they could realize and certainly had no desire to own a multitude of pretty useless city people as slaves. A few important persons, notably the beautiful young Galla Placida, a daughter of Theodosius who had been raised in Stilicho's household, were kept as hostages. All accounts agree that rape was not on the menu -- they were all Christians, after all. Public buildings were burned, but, by and large, houses and churches were spared. Secular artwork was damaged or hauled off, but early sacred art survived -- it was mostly in the catacombs and churches. No matter: it was almost all destroyed later or painted over in new styles.

The sack, although short-lived, had a profound effect on Rome. There was no food in the city, and a chaotic situation prevailed. The Roman slave economy had also finally collapsed, because almost any slave could afford freedom in the glutted and depressed slave market. Roman population numbers, already reduced since the departure of the government apparatus with Constantine ninety years earlier, again fell precipitously as droves of Romans quickly dispersed into the hills and countryside. Additional waves of barbarians, interspersed with outbreaks of plague and wars, ensured that Rome's population would not again meet its highest imperial peak until the 20th century.

From the Visigoth viewpoint the most important thing about Rome, when they finally took it in 410 AD, was also that it was a city without food. The "sacking" was exceedingly brief, and then, led by Alaric, the invaders very quickly headed off southward to forage. They happily devoured whatever was available on the southward march through the fertile Campania and Cosenza. According to legend, they planned to take Sicily as a stepping-stone to North Africa -- where there was more food -- but the plan aborted when Alaric died after a short illness. Another legend, repeated by Gibbon in his "History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire" (Volume 3 Ch. XXXI), recounts the burial of Alaric in the bed of the Busentinus (now Busento) River at the southern edge of Cosenza city, the river having been diverted for the purpose and then allowed to return to its course covering the still undiscovered tomb.

Atawulf, either a son-in-law or a brother-in-law, succeeded Alaric, and eventually led the still-hungry Visigoths back northward and across the Alps into France. These were the same Aquitaine Visigoths that were defeated and absorbed by the Frankish "king", Clovis, in 507 AD during his anti-Arian march through France and his founding of the French Merovingian dynasty. In the shorter run, Atawulf carried off the hostages, including Galla Placida, and enough loot to set up a local Visigoth kingdom. Within a short time Galla Placida defied the wishes of her family (her brother, Honorius, was still Emperor in Ravenna), and she married her captor. The marriage ended a year later when Atawulf was murdered, and she was soon back in her family's arms in Ravenna. (Her whole story is too interesting and complicated to include here -- another article on her is in the works.)

Things didn't get better for Rome when Atawulf and the Visigoths left Italy. In 452 the Huns came all the way down into Italy but stopped short of Rome either because there was famine and plague in Italy that year or because god helped Pope Leo I scare him away. (The official Catholic Church version has been, for more than a century, that Leo simply dissuaded Attila-- no longer any mention of a miracle.) Rome was ravaged again in 455 AD, this time by the Sicilian and North African branches of the Vandals, and they were less kind and less willing to leave: the pillage, bloodshed, and rape (not coreligionists) lasted at least two weeks. Another twenty years of chaos followed during which the last vestiges of Western imperial authority dissolved.

The barbarian mercenaries in the "Roman" army fought amongst themselves for control of the remnants, and finally in 476 Odoacer (there are several spellings) got control of substantially all of the Italian mainland. He sent the imperial regalia to Constantinople and proclaimed himself King. By convention, that event is cited by most historians as the beginning of the "Dark Ages" in Europe.

Odoacer, of course, was another one of those pesky Visigoths.
More Internet links:

Alaric and Stilicho:

Enemies of the Roman Empire:

Gibbon, "Decline and Fall" -- Chapter XXX of Book 3 starts here, and succeeding pages take you through chapter XXXI (click on the "running dog"):

Procopius of Caesaria -- Alaric's sack of Rome (written 140 years later):

Ammianus Marcelinus on "The Luxury of the Rich in Rome". Written a generation before the sack, but it illuminates the decay that made Rome so vulnerable and made Roman city folks so useless as slaves:

Gothic invasion map:

P.S. 1: Alaric may not have been his real name, even though he was certainly a real person. Alaric is derived in some (mostly Germanic, Baltic, and Scandinavian) etymologies as "alla reikus" or other close variants, the meaning of which would be "everyone's ruler". "Alaric" may therefore just be his title or nickname.

P.S. 2: 1527 was the last time Rome was "sacked". After that it was just conquered and looted.

P.S. 3: Should Honorius have believed the allegation that Stilicho was plotting a coup? It certainly is within the realm of possibility that Stilicho was finally fed up with Honorius and the Ravenna court. No real evidence of a coup plot has surfaced, however, and two things argue against a coup theory: 1) there had been ample opportunities before, both in the east and in the west, when Stilicho could have led a takeover, but he had always proved loyal; and 2) a coup, if Stilicho had wanted one, would not have required a "plot" or complex plan. A simple order (such as "Forward march!") would have sufficed.

P.S. 4: The burial in the river story was a common way of explaining why nobody knew the location of a famous grave. If you believe the legends it happened a lot all over Europe and the Middle East in those days. About the only heroes who escaped such a watery grave were King Arthur in England, who supposedly is still in a mountain somewhere waiting to come back and save his country in an hour of need or maybe in Glastonbury Abbey, and Attila, who was buried in an unmarked grave, after which the burial party was massacred and buried in another unmarked grave.

P.S. 5: One theory is that the Visogoths as well as the Lombards and Burgundes swept down out of Scandinavia and were precursors of the Vikings and Russ of several centuries later. It appears that the blondes have always moved southward looking for a beach.