Mini-bio : Alaric the Visigoth.
Why it’s important for you to know him
Because he and his Visigoths laid the groundwork for the destruction of the Western Roman Empire, and thus the Dark Ages, a thousand-year period whose effects we still feel today.
I. Thank you for visiting us, Mr. Visigoth.
Western Civilization is often divided into three main periods: Classical Antiquity, the Medieval Ages, and the Modern Period. Hint: if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you live in the last one, unless you’ve successfully built a time machine, in which case I very much want to be your friend. The era we’re talking about here is sort of the Medieval one, but not exactly. More accurately, we’re going to learn about the guy who helped plunge the world into the Medieval Ages. His name was Alaric and he was a Visigoth.
II. Alaric who?
If you were a Roman in the 400s, then good for you. You had a massive army defending you and could make fun of the barbarians living north of the Danube River called Goths. Specifically, Visigoths, or Western Goths. They were in an area we know now as Romania, and the Romans hadn’t quite gotten around to kicking them out. They simply made fun of them from afar. Not cool.
III. The enemy of my enemy is...
If you tell your kids not to steal your pan of brownies and they do, then you might get angry. And if you’re the Roman Emperor Valens and you find out there are Goths who are plotting against you, then you might get mad as well, and you might use your massive army to head out to their land and annihilate it. But the Romans weren’t in power just because they were strong, they were in power because they were smart. Most of the time they were smart, although *spoiler alert* their intelligence is about to take a nosedive. So when the Goths present a compromise to the Romans, they consider it. What is this proposal? It is this:
The Goths are one tribe of barbarians. The Huns are another tribe of barbarians. You might think that barbarians would be friends with other barbarians, but...no. The Goths are tired of fighting the Huns, so they propose a deal to Rome: let us settle on your land south of the Danube, and we’ll fight for you when you need help. Deal?
Deal. Said Rome.
So all were happy.
IV. Birth of a precious baby.
At some point, a wee mite of a warrior named Alaric is born to a beautiful barbarian woman, and he probably does adorable things as an infant. Eventually he moves on from playing and pooping to fighting and killing, and is so good at those things that he promoted from chief to king.
After he’s king for a short while, Alaric has a dream. Not the fun kind of dream where you’re flying and can zoom all over the universe, but the fun kind of dream where you break your treaty, attack Rome, and ride through the city streets with people chanting for you to become their emperor. This was his dream, and when he called his chiefs together, they became very excited at the thought of breaking their promise and attacking Rome. Fun!
V. So it begins.
Alaric and his horde of gentlemen barbarians gently march through various territories and leave their subtle mark. As in, they completely plundered every town they went through, including Athens. Except that Alaric had a soft spot religious temples and monuments and sometimes let those stand. Sometimes.
If something is bittersweet, it means that there’s more than one taste, and it usually implies that part of the taste is good and part of it isn’t. Alaric’s experiences on this adventure were bittersweet. He got to plunder a bunch of places and do some fighting. That was a good part. But he also got beaten by a Roman general named Stilicho in southwest Greece. This was bad. But...Alaric escaped. This was good. He charmed his way into a friendship with Arcadius, Emperor of the East, who made Alaric a governor of a large region near the Ionian Sea. This was good, thus rendering his experience during this time more sweet than bitter.
But he still wanted to take down Rome.
VI. Get back on the horse.
Alaric marches on Rome again. Honorious, Emperor of the West, flees to his mountain fortress in northern Italy and sends Alaric’s archenemy, General Stilicho, to try and take down Alaric...and he does. Again! But Honorious is not very brave, not very honorable, and not very smart, as evidenced by some of the decisions he made following Alaric’s defeat (again).
First, he was still afraid of Alaric, so he made him a governor of part of his empire. This could have been a wise decision. The whole “keep your friends close and so forth” bit. But Honorius was not very wonderful about keeping all of his promises, so Alaric was forced, much to his delight, to march on Rome again. This was around 408 A.D. Somewhere in here, Honorious also bailed on his great general, Stilicho, which was really poor decision-making. So cowardly Emperor Honorious has no brilliant military tactician to stave off the Visigoth horde.
Honorious refuses to surrender Rome, but the citizens are so terrified of Alaric that they open the gates anyway and ask Alaric to appoint a new Emperor.
Being a great ruler is hard work though, and Honorious’s replacement was so bad that Alaric decided to replace him. This is what we call ‘a second chance.’ What did Honorious do with this second chance? Well...
VIII. Part III.
Honorious decides the best way to fight off Alaric the barbarian would be to pretend to go along with the idea (and get his throne back). But...he uses his second chance to convince an ally of his to attack Alaric.
Alaric is not happy. He lays siege to Rome for a third time. They take the city, of course they do, and his dream finally comes true. He rides at the head of his army in a great procession through the streets. Then comes the hard work. Destruction. Alaric wraps himself up in some giant robes, sits himself at the throne, and directs the destruction of Rome.
The Goths wreck everything. Everything. They seize everything of value and strip the rest. Strangely, Alaric still has a soft spot for the Christian churches, so he orders that they should be kept safe, but everything else is fair game. The pillaging continues, and eventually there are theaters and circuses and performances and gladiators and all sorts of entertaining events going on. Eventually, all good things end, and after six days of this, Alaric and his men march out the gates and head home with Rome’s treasure securely loaded up.
IX. A quick stop.
Alaric wanted to make a quick stop by Sicily to do a tiny bit more conquering, but unfortunately, he hit a minor roadblock with that plan when something sad happened to him that made the rest of his life very difficult: he died.
Fortunately, he was big into dreaming, and he had been having some dreams about his upcoming death, so he was ready and had a plan. Unselfish barbarian that he was, he ordered himself to be buried in the bed of the Busento River, along with the richest treasures from Rome. So after he died, Roman slaves were put to work digging a channel to divert the river’s water so they could dig his grave. Once they had dug it and stuck his body and treasure in it, they diverted the river back to its original channel and everything was covered up. Completely safe. For good measure, the slaves who did the digging were all put to death.
X. The final countdown.
The complete, final, and utter destruction of Rome is not marked until 476 A.D., which is a bit after Alaric’s death. But he was the fellow who had a dream, who had a plan, who followed through and refused to give up. This inspiring message of annihilation showed all the other barbarians what was truly possible, thus making it possible for Rome to finally be taken down once and for later on in the century.