Alaric King of the Visigoths and the Sack of Rome in A.D. 410

Alaric and the Sack of Rome

Sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric the King of the Goths. Miniature from 15th Century.
Sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric the King of the Goths. Miniature from 15th Century. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Alaric and the Goths Timeline | Alaric's Sack of Rome

Alaric was a Visigoth king, a barbarian who has the distinction of having sacked Rome. It was not what he wanted to do: In addition to being a king of the Goths, Alaric was a Roman magister militum 'master of soldiers,' making him a valued member of the Roman Empire.

Despite his allegiance to Rome, Alaric knew he would conquer the eternal city because it had been prophesied:

" Penetrabis ad Urbem"
You will penetrate The City

Despite or to avoid his destiny, Alaric tried to negotiate peacefully with the rulers of Rome.

Far from being the enemy of Rome, Alaric worked as king-maker, installing Priscus Attalus as emperor, and keeping him there despite policy disagreements. It didn't work. Ultimately, Rome's refusals to accommodate a barbarian led Alaric to sack Rome on August 24, A.D. 410.

Aside: An Unlucky Day for Rome

Most Roman festivals began on odd-numbered days because even numbers were considered infelicitous. (The word felix means fortunate in Latin and was the agnomen the Roman dictator Sulla added to his name in 82 B.C. to indicate his luck. Infelicitous means unlucky.) August 24 is a good example of just how bad even-numbered days could be for the Roman Empire, since it was on that same day, 331 years earlier, that Mt. Vesuvius had erupted, wiping out the Campanian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Sack of Rome

Gothic troops destroyed most of Rome and took prisoners, including the Emperor's sister, Galla Placidia.

"But when the appointed day had come, Alaric armed his whole force for the attack and was holding them in readiness close by the Salarian Gate; for it happened that he had encamped there at the beginning of the siege. Aug. 24, 410 A.D. And all the youths at the time of the day agreed upon came to this gate, and, assailing the guards suddenly, put them to death; then they opened the gates and received Alaric and the army into the city at their leisure. And they set fire to the houses which were next to the gate, among which was also the house of Sallust, who in ancient times wrote the history of the Romans, and the greater part of this house has stood half-burned up to my time; and after plundering the whole city and destroying the most of the Romans, they moved on."
Procopius on the Sack of Rome.

What Alaric Did After Sacking Rome

Following the sack of Rome, Alaric led his troops south to Campania, taking Nola and Capua along the way. Alaric headed towards the Roman province of Africa where he intended to provision his army with Rome's personal breadbasket, but a storm wrecked his ships, temporarily blocking his crossing.

The Successor of Alaric

Before Alaric could re-outfit his naval forces, Alaric I, King of the Goths, died at Cosentia. In Alaric's place, the Goths elected his brother-in-law, Athaulf. Instead of heading south to Africa, under Athaulf's leadership the Goths marched north across the Alps, away from Rome. But first, as an en route parting shot, they devastated Etruria (Tuscany).

That's the gist of it. The following two pages contain more, but still abbreviated details on how Alaric tried not to sack Rome, but ultimately felt he had no alternative.

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Books on the Fall of Rome | Rome - An Era-by-Era Timeline

Alaric Needed a Home for the Goths

Alaric, a King of the Goths and leader of other barbarians, tried means other than sacking Rome to get his way with Honorius, the Roman Emperor of the West from c. 395-August 15, 423. Twice before he ultimately sacked Rome, in 410, Alaric had entered Italy with his troops, intending to fulfill his destiny, but talks and Roman promises kept the barbarians at bay.

Alaric first invaded Italy in 401-403.

Previously, Alaric and the Goths were settled in the province of New Epirus (modern Albania) where Alaric held an imperial office. J.B. Bury says he may have served as Magister Militum 'Master of Soldiers' in Illyricum [See Map Sect. fG.] Bury thinks that during this time Alaric refitted his men with state-of-the-art weaponry. It isn't known what made Alaric suddenly decide to invade Italy, but he seems to have determined to find a home for the Goths in the Western Empire, possibly in the Danube provinces.

Vandals and Goths vs Rome

In 401, Radagaisus, another barbarian king (d. August 406) who was possibly in conspiracy with Alaric, led his Vandals across the Alps into Noricum. Honorius sent Stilicho, the son of a Vandal father and Roman mother, to deal with the Vandals, leaving a window of opportunity for Alaric. Alaric picked this moment of distraction to lead his troops into Aquileia, which he captured.

Alaric then won cities in Venetia and was about to march on Milan where Honorius was stationed. However, by this time Stilicho had suppressed the Vandals. He converted them to auxiliary troops, and he took them with him to march on Alaric.

Alaric marched his troops westward to the river Tenarus (at Pollentia) where he told his hesitant troops about the vision about his conquest.

Evidently this worked. Alaric's men fought against Stilicho and his Roman-Vandal troops on April 6, 402. Although there was no decisive victory, Stilicho captured Alaric's family. So Alaric made a treaty with Stilicho and left Italy.

Stilicho Settles With Alaric

In 403, Alaric crossed the border again, to attack Verona, but this time, Stilicho clearly defeated him. Instead of pressing his lead, though, Stilicho came to an agreement with Alaric: the Goths could live between Dalmatia and Pannonia. In return for land to live on, Alaric agreed to support Stilicho when he moved to annex Eastern Illyricum.

Early in 408, Alaric (following the agreement) marched to Virunum, in Noricum. From there he sent the emperor a demand for the salary of his troops. Stilicho urged Honorius to agree, so Alaric was paid and continued in service to the Western Emperor. That spring Alaric was ordered to take back Gaul from the usurper Constantine III.

Aftermath of Stilicho's Death

On August 22, A.D. 408, Stilicho was beheaded for treason. In the aftermath, Roman troops started killing families of barbarian auxiliaries in Italy. 30,000 men fled to join Alaric, who was still in Noricum.

Olympius, the magister officiorum, succeeded Stilicho and faced two unresolved issues: (1) the usurper in Gaul and (2) the Visigoths.

Alaric offered to withdraw to Pannonia if the hostages taken earlier (remember: in the indecisive battle at Pollentia, members of Alaric's family were captured) were returned and if Rome paid him more money. Olympius and Honorius rejected Alaric's offer, so Alaric crossed the Julian Alps that fall. This marked Alaric's third entry into Italy.

Details of Alaric's Sack of Rome

Alaric was going to Rome, so, although he traversed Cremona, Bononia, Ariminum, and the Flaminian Way, he didn't stop to destroy them. Stationing his troops behind the walls, he blockaded the Eternal City, which led to hunger and disease within Rome.

The Romans responded to the crisis by sending ambassadors to Alaric. The king of the Goths demanded pepper, silk, and enough gold and silver that the Romans had to strip statues and melt ornaments to pay the ransom.

A peace treaty was to be made and the hostages would be released to Alaric later, but for the moment, the Goths broke the blockade and left Rome.

The Senate sent Priscus Attalus to the Emperor to urge him to satisfy Alaric's demands, but Honorius again refused. Instead, he ordered 6000 men from Dalmatia to come defend Rome. Attalus accompanied them, and then escaped when Alaric's troops attacked, killing or capturing most of the soldiers from Dalmatia.

In 409, Olympius, having fallen from favor, fled to Dalmatia, and was replaced by the duplicitous Jovius, a guest-friend of Alaric. Jovius was praetorian prefect of Italy and had been made a patrician.

Continued on Next Page

Acting on behalf of Emperor Honorius, the praetorian prefect Jovius arranged peace talks with Alaric, the Visigoth King, who demanded:

  1. 4 provinces for Gothic settlement,
  2. an annual allotment of grain, and
  3. money.

Jovius relayed these demands to Emperor Honorius, along with his recommendation to approve. Honorius characteristically rejected the demands in insulting terms, which Jovius read aloud to Alaric.

The barbarian king was outraged and determined to march on Rome.

Practical concerns -- like food -- kept Alaric from immediately implementing his plan. He reduced from 4 to 2 the number of settlement provinces his Goths required. He even offered to fight for Rome. Alaric sent the Roman bishop, Innocent, to negotiate these new terms with the Emperor Honorius, in Ravenna. This time, Jovius recommended that Honorius reject the offer. Honorius concurred.

Following this refusal, Alaric marched to Rome and blockaded it for a second time at the end of 409. When the Romans yielded to him, Alaric proclaimed Priscus Attalus western Roman Emperor, with the approval of the Senate.

Alaric became Attalus' Master of the Foot, a position of power and influence. Alaric urged Attalus to capture the province of Africa because Rome depended on its grain, but Attalus was reluctant to use military force; instead, he marched with Alaric to Ravenna where Honorius agreed to split, but not cede the Western Empire.

Honorius was ready to flee when the Eastern Empire sent 4000 soldiers to his aid. These reinforcements forced Attalus' retreat to Rome. There he found suffering because, since the African province supported Honorius, it had refused to send grain to rebellious Rome. (This was precisely why Alaric had urged him to capture Africa.) Alaric again urged military force against Africa, but Attalus still refused even though his people were starving.

Clearly, Attalus was a mistake. So Alaric successfully turned to Emperor Honorius to arrange for the removal of Attalus from office.

Leaving his army at Arminum, Alaric then went to Honorius to discuss the terms of his people's peace treaty with the Western Empire. While Alaric was away, an enemy of Alaric, although also a Goth in service to Rome, Sarus, attacked Alaric's men. Alaric broke off negotiations to march on Rome.

Once more Alaric surrounded the city of Rome. Once more the inhabitants of Rome came close to starvation. On August 24, 410, Alaric entered Rome through the Salarian gate. Reports suggest someone let them in -- According to Procopius, either they had infiltrated in Trojan Horse style by sending 300 men disguised as slaves as gifts for the senators or they were admitted by Proba, a rich matriarch who pitied the starving people of the city who had even resorted to cannibalism. No longer feeling merciful, Alaric let his men wreak havoc, burning the Senate house, raping and pillaging for 2-3 days, but leaving the church buildings (but not the contents) intact, before setting off for Campania and Africa.

They had to leave in a hurry because there was not enough food and because they needed to cross the sea before winter.

Africa was Rome's breadbasket, so they started out for it along the Appian Way towards Capua. They plundered the city of Nola and perhaps Capua, as well, and then on to the southern tip of Italy. By the time they were ready to set sail, the weather had turned; the ships that headed out sank. When Alaric fell ill, the Goths moved inland to Consentia.

Edward Gibbon's A.D. 476 is the traditional date for the Fall of Rome, but 410 may be a better choice because on August 24, 410, Rome actually fell, losing out to a barbarian invader.

Sources:

  • AD 410 The Year That Shook Rome, by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard; Los ANgeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum (2010)
  • History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (Volume 1) (Paperback), by J. B. Bury
  • Alaric Study Guide
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Gill, N.S. "Alaric King of the Visigoths and the Sack of Rome in A.D. 410." ThoughtCo, Jun. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/alaric-king-of-the-visigoths-116804. Gill, N.S. (2017, June 21). Alaric King of the Visigoths and the Sack of Rome in A.D. 410. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/alaric-king-of-the-visigoths-116804 Gill, N.S. "Alaric King of the Visigoths and the Sack of Rome in A.D. 410." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/alaric-king-of-the-visigoths-116804 (accessed November 22, 2017).