Alaric and the Fall of Rome

By Punic Hoplite

To begin to talk about Alaric, we must first start with the Huns. The Huns were a nomadic people, moving from what is Mongolia across to Eastern Europe. The Goths, who had settled around the Black Sea, were becoming harassed more and more by the Huns and slowly migrated west. Finally they came upon the Danube River, the border of the Roman Empires. There they stayed, until the leaders of the Gothic tribes decided that life under Roman rule would be better than the constant raiding by the Huns. But entering the Empire meant they could become slaves or die, or prosper.

The Goths Enter the Empire

The Goths asked if they could cross the Danube, and thus be allowed to enter the Empire. The Eastern Roman military might was in the East facing the Persians, so the Emperor Valens made a hasty peace with the Persians to get more forces on the Danube to help police the Goths. At first only one tribe was supposed to cross. However, a tribe could be of a significant size, and all the Gothic tribes that gathered could have numbered around 200,000 people.

The Goths started to cross, but with such an influx of people food dwindled and people began to starve. The Romans policing the Goths made a quick profit by selling dog meat in exchange for Gothic children as slaves. Then things started getting harsh, even for the Romans, so the chief commander sent the Goths to Marcianople to get food, but there were insufficient Roman troops to go with them and to watch the border.

While the Romans were preoccupied, other Gothic tribes moved across the border and followed the first tribe. When the Goths arrived at Marcianople, the troops inside didn't want all the barbarians in at once, so they invited the leaders inside for a nice dinner. While everyone was eating, the Romans tried to assassinate the leaders to control the situation. The Romans failed, and then the Goths started a war against the Romans, and even killed the Eastern Emperor Valens at the battle of Hadrianople.

After Hadrianople, the Balkans was in Gothic hands, and with that, a large portion of the tax base. The reduced treasury meant the East could not maintain as large an army, exactly at the time it needed one. In 382, Theodosius I was forced to make peace. As part of the peace, the Goths were required to provide troops when called on. In the Battle of the Frigidus in 394 A.D., the Goths fighting for the East lost 10,000 men, in what was believed to be a deliberate attempt by the Eastern emperor to reduce the Gothic problem.

One of the generals at the battle was Alaric, the future leader of the Goths, but was taught in Roman ways. So when he gained leadership of the Goths, he would change their place in the world. Another person at the battle who would play a part of Alaric's relationship with Rome would be Stilicho.

Stilicho and Alaric

When Theodosius died, he made his sons emperors of the East and West, with Honorius ruling the West. Both were too young, so he had Stilicho mentor them until they could rule alone. But Stilicho wasn't the Roman of earlier times. He was half Vandal, from his father, and half Roman, from his mother. Stilicho, a half barbarian Roman, was the effective ruler of the entire Roman world. While in the East he was stopped from becoming too powerful by the imperial court there, but in the West he solidified his position by having his daughter marry Honorius. And Honorius would need Stilicho's help. Alaric had begun his war.

Alaric's first attempt was to get a better deal from the East, where the first deal had been struck. As incentive, he ravaged the Balkans and Greece. A deal was made, but then repudiated. Alaric, not stupid, knew that his chance of getting a good deal in the East was gone, and took his army and invaded Italy in 402. All he wanted was long term legal recognition for his people. And he had two ways to do it. First, he wanted to become a magister militum, which is a high rank in the Roman military; and second he wanted a food subsidy in the area that they had settled. Stilicho would not accept this because it would have ended his political career over a barbarian force that was prepared to put a knife to Rome's throat. The two forces battled twice, neither of which give the advantage to either of them. Having no supplies, Alaric returned to what is now Bulgaria during the winter. He had gotten nowhere fast. But that was to change soon.

Then in 406, Stilicho wanted to make a deal with the Devil. He sent a messenger to Alaric saying he wanted their help. He saw a way to kill three birds with one stone. First he wanted peace, which he would get by granting the Goths what they wanted, which would make him get his second objective, which was to secure the frontier with their army. The problem was that the land they were on was in Dacia and Macedonia, which belonged to the Eastern Empire. And if he were to succeed in taking that land, it would grant him much needed recruiting grounds for soldiers. But when everything was set, and Alaric and Stilicho were just about ready to march on the Eastern Empire, hell broke loose.

During the year that Alaric was waiting for Stilicho to arrive, Stilicho had to face two barbarian invasions, a Gothic one which reached Florence before it was defeated, and a group of barbarians (Vandals, Alans, and Suevi) that had crossed the Rhine, and ran-sacked their way into Spain. There was a further crisis when the commander of the army in Britannia was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. This man was Constantine III and when he crossed into Gaul to try to stop the barbarian group, he gained massive popularity, and gained the armies of Spain and Gaul along with Britannia.

While Stilicho still had the army of Italy, he was not strong enough to defeat Constantine and the barbarians, making the venture with Alaric out of the question. But Alaric still wanted to be paid for upkeep of his army. The Romans, unsurprisingly, opposed this, but Stilicho knew that they needed to pay Alaric: the West could not face three enemies at once. And when the Emperor of the East died, Stilicho went to see the transition of power. Yet while he was gone, Stilicho's clock started its last round as his enemies plotted.

First in the plot, which was planned by Olympius, was a planned mutiny in Ticinum where many of Stilicho's allies were located, as well as the Emperor. Anyone with associations to Stilicho was killed. He was prepared to march his 12,000 strong army to the city if the Emperor was murdered, but Honorius was not, and Stilicho did not intervene, despite friends urging him to. He returned to Ravenna, and sought sanctuary in the church. He was tempted to leave the church when given a solemn oath that he was not to be executed. Honorius' letter ordering his execution was then presented. With Stilicho's death, the empire had lost its strongest commander. Seeing his best chance of cooperation with the West gone, Alaric invaded.

Alaric's Invasion

Alaric invaded Italy, and in 408 he took much of northern Italy, then marched on Rome. The first time he appeared before Rome he succeeded in getting 2 tons of gold and 13 of silver, paid by the people of Rome in exchange for lifting the siege for three days. Alaric also gained a military alliance, a first step. Then he marched north. While that was happening, 6,000 Roman soldiers were dispatched for Rome to bolster the defenses. Alaric caught sight of the reinforcements and slaughtered them all.

Alaric returned to Rome, and again besieged it. With Stilicho dead, and an ongoing civil war, Honorius recognised the usurper Constantius III as co-emperor. Then Alaric sent Honorius a deal: an annual payment of gold and wheat and the right to settle in Rhaetia and Noricum, along with a generalship in the Roman army. When Honorius agreed to the payments, but not the land and generalship, Alaric was furious, but then sent him a revised deal: no payments, no generalship, but only to settle in Noricum, "which was always being invaded and had little tax worth" as Alaric put it. Honorius refused to listen. When the envoys arrived and told Alaric the deal was off, he marched on Rome a third time, and again besieged it. In 409, Attalus was declared Emperor by the senators that were left in Rome. So in 409 AD there were three Emperors: Honorius, Constantine III, and Attalus.

The Fall of Rome

Then in the last attempt to negotiate peace, Alaric marched north but was ambushed by Sarus, a Gothic-Roman General, but had acted on his Gothic side (Alaric and Sarus were from the same tribe). So when Honorius might have been willing for a peace, someone else shot it down. Sarus was defeated, and Alaric returned to Rome for the last time. Two years after the first siege, Alaric let the axe fall on the city. The day was 24 August 410, and on that day Alaric knew he had failed (he considered the sack of Rome as an utter failure in his career). But Alaric was an Arian Christian, and he made all Christian items off limits. There was looting, the mausoleum of Augustus was ransacked and the ashes in the funerary urns scattered, but there was no wholesale destruction of Rome or its inhabitants. The city survived.

Nevertheless, the siege and fall of Rome was a traumatic event for the empire's citizens.

After the third day of pillaging, the Goths left Rome, then Italy. Alaric died in 410, and legend has it that he was buried in the river Busento.


Later another Roman general, Flavius Constantius, came to the fore and filled the void left by Stilicho. Constantius defeated Constantine and the revolts in the western provinces, regained the armies of Spain and Gaul, and defeated the Goths who were now lead by Alaric's brother. He was cast down and a new leader made peace with the Romans. The Romans granted them land in Aquitaine, finally fulfilling Alaric's dream.