Alaric may well be the best known German barbarian in Roman history. He was a Goth of high rank and bizarrely for someone who is mainly remembered for wrecking the empire, his role model was probably the man who was for a time to become his great enemy: Stilicho, whose military expertise had given him effective control of the Empire in the West.
Alaric’s father had been Athanaric, the Gothic king who was so impressed by Theodosius and his capital at Constantinople that he had entered into an alliance with him. So Alairic had a pretty intimate knowledge of the empire.It seems likely that the height of Alaric’s ambition, at least at first, was to be a major Roman general, and many of the twists and turns of his story make most sense in the light of that goal.
He had been recruited to the Roman side by Stilicho who at the time was the lieutenant of Theodosius. It was in circumstances that seem a little bizarre to our modern notions of warfare, but which didn’t raise an eyebrow at the time. Alaric had invaded Thrace in 391. Stilicho was sent by Theodosius to stop him, which he did. But he was impressed by Alaric’s way of doing things and offered him a job. Three years later Alaric led 20,000 troops at the battle of Frigidus, fighting to defend Theodosius from a serious threat to his throne. The Goths were positioned in the middle of the battle on the first day and suffered stunning casualties. Only 10,000 of them survived. It may well have been that Theodosius and Stilicho contrived that the Goths should bear the brunt of the fighting exactly so as to weaken Alaric. That was the sort of trick the Romans pulled all the time in their dealings with their allies. If so it was probably a great mistake. The opportunity to turn the talents of Alaric to the advantage of the empire was one that really shouldn’t have been missed. In any event Alaric didn’t get the reward he was hoping for from his efforts.
Spurned by Theodosius, Alaric instead rallied the Goths inside and outside the empire to his standard. On the death of Theodosius they swept across the river Danube and poured into the undefended Balkans – the bulk of the army still being with Stilicho in Italy engaged in mopping up operations after the battle of Frigidus. The Eastern Empire might not have had many troops to hand, but they could still use diplomacy. The effective commander of the East at this point was the artful and ruthless domestic Rufinus, who demonstrated his skills at flattery by wearing the national costume of the the Goths when he arrived to negotiate. But the talks came to nothing and the invasion continued. Later after his death it was suggested that Rufinus was meeting with them to further his own ends, though how exactly he was doing that isn’t obvious. But in any case, Alaric was driven by a high ambition that made it difficult to buy him off. He pushed on beyond the regions that the Goths had plundered only a few years previously. His sights were set on Greece. The conquest of Greece was not an easy task even for Alaric. He had to penetrate mountains where he could have been halted and possibly surrounded. In fact he entered via the pass of Thermopylae where the Greeks had famously done exactly that to the Persians 800 years before. The terrain had allowed the march of a much greater army than the one Alaric led to be halted.
You can see why people were suspicious of Rufinus. He allowed Alaric the passage of the mountains unopposed, even though it was an ideal point to have confronted him.
The Goths proceeded to ravage northern Greece. Athens surrendered, for a heavy price, and laid on an elaborate dinner where Alaric was able to show off how sophisticated and civilised he was. In the meantime his barbarians in the surrounding countryside showed off the exact opposite as men where killed indiscriminately and attractive women taken prisoner. They then moved to the south of Greece. Again, the narrow neck of land between the Isthmus of Corinth and the Aegean Sea provided an ideal opportunity to hold the Goths back. Again the opportunity was not taken. The Goths poured across it and ransacked the heart of Classical Greece. It probably wasn’t particularly something they cared about one way or the other, but they happened to destroy some of the last remnants of pagan worship including the site of the Eleusinian mysteries. They didn’t have much chance of lasting for much longer with the ascendancy of Christianity – but it was Alaric who actually finished them off. The temples made attractive targets for the barbarians in search of portable loot. Many ancient and priceless artefacts of the old religion were melted down for their precious metals. It is impossible to know how much of the physical culture of the Hellenic world was destroyed.
While this was going on Stilicho was not far away with a large army. But he was ordered to depart by Rufinus, leaving Alaric free to continue is pillage. The rivalry between the two halves of the empire trumped the protection of a couple of provinces. Corinth, Argos and Sparta were all destroyed.
Finally Rufinus and the Goth managed to come to an agreement. Alaric was given cash and appointed as a Roman governor. This meant he was nominally in charge of the provinces he had just sacked. That can’t have gone down very well with the inhabitants, especially when he sent out orders for weapons to be produced for the Goths.
Alaric’s ambition was stoked rather than appeased. Next he conceived an even bolder, and even riskier undertaking. He set out to invade Italy itself. It is tempting to see the hand of Rufinus behind this. Diverting the barbarians to the rival half of the empire would have suited him very well. But I think the size of Alaric’s ego is quite enough of an explanation. He would be the first barbarian to penetrate the original home of the empire since the time of the emperor Aurelian over a hundred years before. Rich pickings were anticipated from the unspoiled provinces surrounding the rich city that had for four hundred years been the capital of the world. But this would certainly bring him into direct contact with his old adversary and recent friend, Stilicho. But at first things seemed to go well. The Goths again were unopposed and were able to indulge their fondness for carrying off valuable stuff if they could and destroying it if they couldn’t.
And in fact they nearly bagged an incomparable prize. The emperor Honorius had panicked on hearing of the approach of the Goths and left Milan to seek safety at Arles in Gaul. This was a curious decision under the circumstances since it required traveling across exactly the area occupied by the marauding Goths. The young emperor ended up holed in a small town called Hasta, surrounded by the main body of the Gothic army led by Alaric himself, who was always someone who saw an opportunity when it was offered. It isn’t known if Honorius had taken his wife with him, Maria the daughter of Stilicho. That would have given Stilicho a very personal motivation to deal with the crisis. Even if not it was still very bad news. The legitimate but half-witted seventeen year old ruler of the western empire was on the point of falling into the hands of the ambitious and unscrupulous Alaric.
Stilicho was meanwhile on the borders to the east of the Alps fighting an incursion by barbarians, probably Alamanni. In a brilliant bit of outside the box thinking, Stilicho negotiated a peace and then hired the warriors he had just been fighting against. He then set out to rescue his idiot son-in-law, sending messages to the borders of the Rhine and to Britain to pull back every soldier to Italy. He crossed the ground as quickly as he could, and as soon as he was in the area attacked the besiegers. The encounter took place near the town of Pollentia, and was hard fought. The Romans initially gained the element of surprise by attacking on Easter Sunday – something equally shocking to both sides. The Goths broke the wing of the Roman’s attack and would have carried the day without an unorthodox infantry charge in the centre of the battle led by Stilicho himself. Alaric was beaten, but escaped with enough men to still pose a threat. (His wife ended up getting captured though. I always think this doesn’t reflect well on Alaric.)
He headed south with the intention of attacking Rome itself. Stilicho had shown that he was prepared to risk a set piece battle when the situation required it. He had also shown that he was well suited to leading troops in the heat of battle. But heroism is an expensive business in terms of lives, and Stilicho didn’t have the numbers to spend. The problem the empire faced was above all shortage of trained fighting men. Rather than confront the Goths head on, Stilicho switched tactics to using hastily constructed walls and static defences to pen the Goths into a steadily smaller area. It wasn’t spectacular but it was effective. Both sides were facing a stalemate that would weaken them both. There was a deal to be had. Stilicho entered into negotiations and succeeded in reaching a deal that involved paying Alaric to go away.
Alaric may well have been somewhat reluctant to accept this. He always comes across as a man with a strong sense of his own destiny rather than a simple opportunist. But he was the leader of a coalition and the people around him quite liked the notion of a big payout combined with a chance of staying alive to spend it. So Alaric left Italy. His next target was Gaul – still nominally part of the empire, though it was no longer held firmly by legions. Diplomacy and willpower were the only tools the Romans had left in their toolpack. There was nothing to stop Alaric creating for himself a kingdom there, if that was what he chose to do.
Alaric set out for Gaul but was ambushed near the Alps – he was trying to capture Verona presumably to use it as a forward base for future Italian operations. Stilicho was also well versed in the arts of espionge, and took advantage of the terrain to spring a trap. The Goth barely escaped with his life and led what was now a very small contingent into Germany in the hope of raising more troops. For now, the throne of Honorius was safe.
The Romans had at various times been ruled by warriors, philosophers, able administrators, mad men and religious fanatics. Honorius was a half wit. He seems to have been at his happiest feeding chickens. His marriage to Maria, the daughter of Stilicho was obviously simply to further the interests of Stilicho and was in all likelihood never consumated. But the young man was clearly a soft touch and was easily manipulated by those around him.
In 402 to celebrate the victory at Pollentia games were held in Rome. This was the last time a Roman emperor presided over gladiatorial games. There is much to admire about the Roman Empire, but these had always been a stain that it is not easy to ignore and impossible to rationalise away. The Romans seem to have thought that it was necessary to keep them as a display of their toughness in a dangerous world. But for once, Christians seem to have taken a moral lead. They wrote against this inhuman practice. And one, a monk called Telemachus, to direct action. He invaded the arena and tried to prevent the combat between two gladiators by physically getting between them. This was obviously a dangerous thing to do, and it proved to be fatal. The crowd, incensed at someone spoiling the fun, stoned him to death mid-show.
But the practice of fighting to death for entertainment came to an end from that time onwards. Telemachus died for his principles, and made the world a better place as a result. It was an eventful time, and his story has been lost in the great dramas that unfolded around him. But lets remember a brave man who is often overlooked.
This incident must have marred the day a little, but even so it must have been a good feeling to have an emperor back in the city presiding over the ancient entertainments. With the Goths still on the loose, the northern provinces still inaccessible and the borders to all intents and purposes open things weren’t exactly back to normal. They could take comfort from the way Stilicho seemed to know what he was doing. They can’t have known how little time was left to the way of life of the city that would still have been recognisable to Augustus.
But Honorius was not going to stay in Rome much longer. With the experience of having to abandon Milan behind him, he sought out somewhere safer to live – or Stilicho more likely did for him. He moved to Ravenna, a naval base on the Adriatic. The appeal was that it was surrounded by swamps making it almost inaccessible from the land and a very tough prospect to attack. The bridges could easily be pulled up in the event of the approach of a hostile army. It would need sea power to impose a blockade. It was basically the safest spot in Italy, and was to be the centre of imperial power in the west for the next three centuries.
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