Alaric, Barbarians and Rome: a Complicated Relationship

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One of the main political aspects which one can notice in the world of Late Antiquity is the growing power of the barbaric tribes, both outside and inside the Roman Empire. The term ‘barbarian’, initially referring to the space beyond the borders of Greek civilization, will suffer an extension in the Later Empire, gathering under the same name those who are not Roman citizens and whose image is reconstructed almost exclusively thanks to Roman sources of the 4thto 6thcentury such as Orosius, Zosimus, Jordanes, Socrates the Scholastic or Sozomen. We must therefore take into account the limitations of objectivity imposed by ethnocentrism and mentality.

The Goths, located west and north of the Black Sea, in the region between the Danube and Don river, organized lots of raids in the 3rdcentury, and in the year 332 their conflict with emperor Constantine the Great is solved only by signing a foedus(treaty) which proves its effectiveness for three decades. In this amount of time Goths are occasionally recruited as auxiliary troops, for instance by emperor Constantius in 360 or by usurper Procopius in 365. The abbreviated histories  of Eutropius and Aurelius Victor mention several serious wars of these populations against the Roman Empire during the reign of emperors Decius, Gallienus and Constantine, the latter winning important battles against the Visigoths led by Rausimodus.

During the joint reign of Valentinian and Valens the barbarians support the military forces of Constantinople who offer the crown to the pagan intellectual Procopius. Valens will be fighting heavily against the Goths in the years 367-369. Their tribes, led by Fritigern and Alaviv, had requested refuge in the Roman Empire due to Hun pressure and indeed they would receive the opportunity to establish themselves in Thrace as foederati, which is in fact the beginning of their great migrations in the south and west of the Empire.

But the imperial authorities in the Balkans mistreat the barbarians who will eventually lead an uprising in the year 376 and devastate the whole peninsula, triggering a reaction of emperor Valens. Sadly, the emperor will perish in a battle deemed one of the greatest losses in Roman military history, that is, the battle of Adrianople on the fateful day of the 9thof August 378, when the Gothic cavalry smashed the Roman legions. The critical situation forces emperor Theodosius to sign a foeduswith the Goths in 382, which allowed them to occupy the area between the Danube and the Balkans. At the same time they enjoyed autonomy and fiscal immunity, as well as grants and subsidies, in exchange for soldiers that would help defend the empire.

This system of alliance will, however, prove to be very fragile and this can be seen in the moment Magnus Maximus usurps the power in the West (383). The Thervings are initially supporters of Theodosius, but during the campaign a lot of them desert him and run off to Macedonia. Such deeds also hint at what historian Peter Heather called ‘barbaric irrationality’, a common Roman historiographical theme, part of the way Romans perceived barbarians:they were spontaneous, they went with the flow, unlike the civilized Romans who planned everything, had a flair for probabilities and acted responsibly. Barbarians were the ultimate image of otherness, the inferior society whose imperfections justified and legitimized Roman domination, which on the contrary, was an image of divine order.

The consequences of this approach, as Heather puts it, are the perpetual conflict which is seen as a normal state of affairs, and the idea that Rome must triumph every time. Nevertheless, in practice things are slightly different. Conflicts are more than often reduced to diplomatic games in which both sides are willing to maximize their profits. All the more that at the end of the 5thcentury gothic tribes tend to integrate into the Roman world.

Alaric and Stilicho, barbarians in the Roman world

The great leader Alaric makes his appearance on the political stage in the year 391, when he leads a raid all the way to Greece. Probably the son of Alaviv, the one taking part in the events of 376, Alaric belonged to the second clan of Goths, the so-called Balthi. Sources that mention him and his personality lack objectivity and perceive him more like a divine punishment for Rome’s sins, either for abandoning the old gods or for not believing in the Christian one. He was in fact a very capable ruler who managed to combine military actions with diplomatic tactics so as to gain advantage even in onerous circumstances. Jordanes relates that when he becomes king he takes counsel with his best men and decides to establish a solid kingdom that would be acknowledged by all foreign powers an independent entity. Therefore, he desired a territory for his people, an alliance with the Romans and no subordination. The sources sometimes equate his political ability with barbaric treacherousness, again a recurring theme meant to justify the weakness of the empire in the years 401-410. Alaric is the scourge of heavens.

At the end of the 4thcentury however, general Stilicho, again a very capable barbarian (Vandal) this time in the service of the Western Roman Empire, defeats Alaric several times:on the Hebrus river, in Thessaly and on the Phloe plateau in Elis. He and his people are allowed to carry on because Stilicho has a plan of his own. He who was the de facto ruler of the Western Empire, wants to use this barbaric mass to recover the province of Illyricum from the eastern side of the empire.

The relationship between the two parts is very tense. When Theodosius dies, general Stilicho claims guardianship of both his children. As he does not gain it, he uses military pressure against eunuch Rufinus in the Balkans. After a naval campaign around Greece that forces Alaric to retreat in the direction of Epirus but without submitting him, eunuch Eutropius is convinced Stilicho denied his authority and used the Goths as a pretext to invade the eastern regions, so he persuades emperor Arcadius to declare him enemy of the state. On the other hand, Alaric thinks less and less of the Romans, especially since after the rebellions of Gainas and Trigibild, who were meddling in Constantinople’s inner affairs, Goths became extremely unpopular with the Romans who began to banish them from the city. In dire need for food and since subsidies were cut and the Balkan area was already devastated, Alaric decides to head for Rome. His people start marching toward Italy in the year 401.

Forced by Vandals and Alans to make haste in Rhaetia and Noricum, Stilicho cannot prevent Alaric from entering the Italic peninsula on the 18thof November. The Goths reach Aquileia, but they are unable to conquer it due to their lack of experience with sieged attacks. They do plunder the plains of Venice, capture several cities and threaten Milan. The emperor established his quarters at Ravenna, a more defendable location. Quickly recruiting some units of Alan cavalry and troops of Vandal mercenaries, Stilicho meets Alaric at Pollentia. They engage in combat on the 6thof April 402, a battle which is slightly in favor of the Roman general. Stilicho seizes all of Alaric’s prey and calls a truce with the Goth, but since Alaric continues with the raiding there follows another battle, this time at the gates of Verona, again inconclusive.

Retreating in Dalmatia ad Pannonia, Alaric plunders the east of Illyricum, which hints at a probable understanding of the two barbarians given the tension between the two parts of the empire. To realize how important the connection between Illyricum and Alaric was, we must also consider the gothic agenda. Ever since 395 Alaric leaves the impression that he is willing to accept an alliance with the Roman state, but he must be offered generous subsidies and a legitimate territory. Stilicho was facing a dilemma:he could move the Goths from Dacia and Macedonia to the east of Illyricum, controlled by him, but that would have caused troubles with the local landowners, or he could have let them keep the territories they already occupied, which would have meant Constantinople had to act and give Stilicho the east of Illyricum so he could protect it. The general chooses the second option, also the simplest way to win over the Goths. So in the year 405 he offers Alaric the title magister militum, commander, a decision used in eastern propaganda to accuse Stilicho of trying to invade the Eastern Empire, but he in fact only strengthens an already present hegemony using Alaric to do so.

Anyway, in this very complicated network of events the barbarian Radagaisus and his bands invade Rhaetia and Italy. The barbarian conglomerate cause massive devastation in Flavia Solva and Aguntum. Their leader is barely stopped at Faesula and executed in 406. The problems do not end here. Vandals, Alans and Suebians cross the Rhine near Mainz, plunder Gallia and because the authorities cannot cope with the crisis usurpers such as Marcus, Gratianus or Constantine the 3rdusurp the power in Britain. Moreover, Alaric is no longer willing to remain Stilicho’s pawn in his attempt to defy the East and takes a strong stand in Noricum where he claims 4000 solidi. Stilicho advises emperor Honorius to pay him given the troublesome conditions in Gallia and not only there.

The March of the Goths

As a consequence of the many machinations at the Roman court, the Vandal general is accused of treason and executed on the 22ndof August 408. No longer having someone to negotiate with, Alaric will act accordingly, invading Italy on the Via Postumia, passing by Aquileia, Verona and Cremona, then taking the Via Salaria and the road Ascoli-Reate, reaching Rome in less than a month. The barbarian lays siege upon the ancient capital. The siege of Rome had a major impact on the citizens, who are on the verge of slaughter and starvation and as such they start looking for a scapegoat. They find it in Stilicho’s wife, blaming the general for not getting rid of the Goth while he had the opportunity. The historical sources sometimes mention a demon ordering Alaric to attack Rome, such was the mental impact of the event. In spite of the great impact that also caused a public outrage with many demanding the return to the old pagan traditions, Alaric begins his negotiations with the Roman state. At Rimini, Alaric send his message to the emperor through the latter’s emissary, the Pretorian prefect Iovianus, asking for 30000 silver pounds, 5000 golden ones and also the title previously owned by Stilicho:magister utriusque militiae.

The emperor agrees with the material requests, but refuses to bestow the title on him. Annoyed, Alaric chooses an emperor of his own, one Priscus Attalus, aware of the tremendous effect of an usurpation that may bring Honorius to his senses. Priscus Atallus had been the prefect of the city and one of the ambassadors who prepared the negotiations at Rimini. He was a member of the pagan circle of Symmachus the rhetorician, the Gothic bishop Sigesar baptized him in the Arian rite and he was crowned Augustus. He awards Alaric with the much desired title, magister utriusque militiae, and his brother-in-law Athaulf with the title of comes domesticorum equitum. Yet the new ruler has claims of his own, aspiring to dominate the political scene. What he did not realize was his absolute dependence on the barbarian, whom he ignored by not acting hastily enough to secure Africa and refusing Honorius’ offer of a joint reign, which hints at the very delicate state of the empire at that time.

Regardless of the reasons, ranging from arrogance to imperial claims and a total mistrust of the court in Ravenna, Attalus proves to be useless for Alaric, who relegates him at Rimini and acknowledges that Honorius only is responsible for fulfilling the Gothic requests. The two are about to reach an agreement, but unfortunately the odds are against it. Sarus, a barbarian once belonging to the same clan as Alaric, had deserted the Goths some time ago and was now on the Roman side. Fearful of his own fate and vengeful of Alaric, he attacks the king by surprise. Alaric, believing the emperor had betrayed him once more, attacks Rome once more in full rage. Not only does he attack it, but he also manages to enter the city and sack it, probably thanks to some inside help. The Salaria Gate opens wide for his men, who mercilessly plunder the city for three whole days, between the 24thand 26thof August in 410. Both pagan and Christian authors depict an apocalyptic image of the events, full of massacres and destructions.

There were some limitations though:the Romans were permitted to flee in Africa and the sanctuaries were at times spared. In comparison to the raid of the Senones, the Gaul tribe who sacked Rome 800 years earlier, things appear to be slightly better, although Orosius clearly exaggerates when he says that Romans and Goths began to sing hymns together for the glory of God. Anyway, the psychological effect was an astonishing one. Many wondered if the empire was ever to regain its former glamour. The moral shock was by far more overwhelming than the material losses. The overall emotion favored the spread of millenarianism, visions of the end and the quest for answers in religions. All in all, it was inconceivable for a Roman citizen, raised with the thought of the invincibility of this civilization, to witness such disaster.

But still, the circumstances were not so happy for the Goths either. Even for Alaric the sack of Rome actually meant admitting defeat. Everything he hoped for and for which he had fought was shattered with the city. He did not obtain an imperial post, he did not obtain a legitimate territory for his people. Athaulf will eventually suceed in doing so but at that particular moment things were problematic for the barbarians as well. The sack of Rome did not solve anything in practice, it was more of a personal satisfaction. Alaric tried to force the state to act, because Rome had such a high symbolic meaning. After the raid, the king, preoccupied with providing food for his people, headed south seeking passage to Sicily and North Africa, but the lack of naval experience prevents the success of such a migration. Returning to central Italy, Alaric finds his death at Bruttum.

Jordanes tells an interesting story:to bury him, the course of the river Busentus was diverted and Roman captives dug a grave. Alaric’s body was laid in there but not alone. Many treasures gathered from Rome are also said to have found their tomb. Then the river was diverted onto its normal course and the diggers killed so that no one may ever learn about the place of burial…

He was an interesting character, with great political zeal and consistent with his purpose despite the cultural inferiority which is generally ascribed to him. Yet his military and administrative inferiority drag him down, and he manages to survive only thanks to the plots at the imperial court. His story is symptomatic for the state of affairs in late antiquity:barbarian get involved in Roman politics, they migrate quite a lot, the provinces are not so stable, the western and eastern parts of the empire do not collaborate very well, the political networks tend to become more and more entangled, the Roman and non-Roman worlds appear to be in a constant cultural exchange.

We recommend:

Bury, J.B.,  The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. A Series of Lectures, University of London, 1927;

Cameron, Averil, Garnsey, Peter (ed.),  Cambridge Ancient History,  Cambridge University Press, 2008;

Heather, Peter,  The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History, London, Macmillan, 2005;

Kulikowski, Michael,  Rome’s Gothic Wars, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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