The Man Who Sacked Rome

Alaric the Goth wanted to be part of the empire. Instead he helped bring it down.

illustration of Alaric the Goth
Rodrigo Corral

The sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths has exerted an outsize influence on the Western imagination. It was a devastating event, and sent psychological aftershocks across the empire. On the night of August 24, in the year 410, thousands of Goths made their way into the city through the Porta Salaria, not far from where the American embassy sits today. Rome’s walls were stout, and had recently been reinforced; an accomplice on the inside may have opened the gates. The invaders ravaged the city for three full days before departing with captives and plunder. According to legend, they took away sacred trophies the Romans had themselves looted from the Second Temple in Jerusalem more than three centuries earlier.

Rome’s defenses had not been breached in 800 years—not since a sack by the Gauls at the beginning of the fourth century b.c., long before Rome became an imperial power. News of what the Goths had done spread quickly. The sack was seen as a portent—of the end of the empire or even, as some apocalyptic Christian writers saw it, the end of God’s earthly creation. Saint Jerome wrote an emotional letter (“as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance”) from faraway Bethlehem: “The city that once captured the hearts and minds of the world has been captured!” Saint Augustine urged Christians to flee the “moral disease” of secular Rome and put their faith in a heavenly city that beckoned from beyond this life. A memory of the sacking shivered down the ages. “This awful catastrophe of Rome,” Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “filled the astonished empire with grief and terror.” Victorian painters turned again and again to the subject, slathering pots of paint across acres of canvas. The depictions are disturbingly romantic: seminude invaders among smoldering monuments, preening with bloodlust and concupiscence. The sack has resonance to this day. The historian Niall Ferguson invoked it in a column published after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, noting: “This is exactly how civilizations fall.”

But who was this man Alaric, and what exactly happened during those three days in a.d. 410? These are the questions that the historian Douglas Boin, the author of several specialized studies about late antiquity, sets out to answer in Alaric the Goth: An Outsiders History of the Fall of Rome, a smart book for the general reader. Boin has his work cut out for him. Alaric stands with Attila among Rome’s best-known antagonists, but the source material is gossamer-thin. Few accounts by writers with firsthand knowledge survive, and most of these chroniclers have a slanted perspective—pro-empire or pro-Goth or pro-apocalypse. Other accounts were composed 50 or 100 years later. And historical works by a number of writers have come down to us only in bits and pieces.

Many other historical figures (Cleopatra, Chaucer, Shakespeare) have presented similar problems, which hasn’t deterred historians: Stir the reliable bits and the speculative bits into a yeasty batter of everything else known about society at the time, and a focused narrative can emerge. “From this collection of odds and ends,” Boin writes in that spirit, “we steal a glimpse of a real person.” Yet even when the job is done with rigor, the results are a little weasely—ample use of must have and could easily and not hard to imagine. The method works best when the historical context provides solid ground, which the fifth century doesn’t. Politically, the era was unruly and mysterious—a chess game in which players came and went, and the pieces on the board could change color and identity overnight. But instability and shifting allegiances are also essential to the story.

The late Roman empire—still encircling the Mediterranean but divided into eastern and western spheres—was held together by bribery, accommodation, backstabbing, and force of arms. The city of Rome was more than 1,000 years old and rich, but functionally no more than a symbolic capital; power lay with armies, and emperors could be anywhere. (Diocletian had been emperor for 20 years before he saw Rome for the first time.) Networks of influence crossed traditional boundaries of ethnicity and religion. Consider the life of a woman named Galla Placidia. She was the daughter of one emperor and the half sister of two others but grew up in the household of a general named Stilicho, the son of a Vandal. Stilicho fought faithfully for Rome but was never quite trusted, and was executed after military setbacks. Galla Placidia’s first husband (who also met an unhappy end) was not some Roman blue blood but a Goth named Athaulf—who happened to be Alaric’s brother-in-law.

It was a time when governance was fractured; the division of the empire into eastern and western jurisdictions is just one example. Constitutional norms were a distant memory. Christian influence was ascendant even as eminent pagans fought to uphold the old ways. Threats to security came from all directions. Germanic tribes hired themselves out to defend the empire in the manner of private security firms like Blackwater, switching sides if the price was right. And who was a “Roman” anyway? Goths, Vandals, and Huns all fought on Rome’s behalf at various times. They also fought against Rome, and one another.

Yet the soft power of Romanitas—a concept that is hard to define precisely but encompasses the values, amenities, and way of life of the imperial system—remained alluring. Many “barbarians”—not a word much in favor these days—became citizens; their families may have been citizens for centuries. When expedient, whole tribes were welcomed into the empire and given some sort of legal status. In a.d. 212, Emperor Caracalla, bowing to reality, granted citizenship to all freeborn persons within the empire’s borders. Among the beneficiaries of Caracalla’s edict was a foreign soldier of mixed heritage named Maximinus Thrax, who became an imperial soldier and in 235 was proclaimed emperor. Outsiders didn’t seek to lay waste to Rome; they wanted to become insiders. In a way, they loved Rome to death.

Alaric was one of these people—don’t think of him as a man in bearskins who worshipped the forest gods. The bare outline of his life is not in dispute. He was born north of the Danube River to a prominent Gothic family in what had once been the imperial province of Dacia (roughly corresponding to modern Romania). The Romans had long since withdrawn, but his family was familiar with Rome and its ways. Alaric spoke Latin as well as his native Gothic tongue. He had been baptized a Christian, even if doctrinal affinity put him in the heretical Arian camp.

As a youth, Alaric crossed the Danube to seek his fortunes in the imperial army, bringing others with him, and proved himself a natural leader. At the Battle of Frigidus, in 394, he and his Gothic foederati saved the day for Emperor Theodosius. The cost to the Goths was high: some 10,000 killed. Alaric seems to have felt that their sacrifice—and his own role—wasn’t appreciated or even acknowledged. He retaliated angrily by marauding through Greece. As a placatory gesture, Emperor Arcadius—son of Theodosius—named him general of Illyricum, an imperial prefecture extending from the Balkans south to the sea. It was a significant responsibility. But administrative reshuffling soon eliminated the position. Alaric’s sense of grievance was now at a boil.

He commanded a force of Goths that was augmented, as time went on, by warriors from other groups. He wanted some combination of respect, money, territory to occupy, and a seat at the table. After one failed try, he led his forces into Italy a second time, buoyed by victories, undeterred by defeats, and always seeking to negotiate with the ruling powers. Extortion was generally involved. Eventually he reached Rome, putting the city under siege off and on for two years. His ability to interdict grain shipments led to hardship inside the walls. Countless efforts to defuse the crisis showed initial promise and then collapsed—Emperor Honorius, based in Ravenna, proved pigheaded and duplicitous. Finally, on the night of August 24, Alaric’s forces made their way inside.

Upbraided once for behaving badly, Evelyn Waugh replied, “Imagine how much worse I’d be if I weren’t a Catholic.” Something similar might be said of Alaric. He was Arian, to be sure, but regarded himself as a Christian, as Arians indeed were. He decreed churches and holy sites to be inviolable, and gave sanctuary to anyone who took refuge there. “He also told his men,” according to Orosius, one of the more straightforward chroniclers, “that as far as possible, they must refrain from shedding blood in their hunger for booty.” There was certainly violence, often attributed to the unruly Huns among Alaric’s forces, and many fires were set. Palaces and ordinary homes were looted. And yet even sources hostile to Alaric comment on his relative restraint, at least by the standards of the day. Archaeology has not uncovered evidence of vast destruction. A Sack of Rome Conference held in the city in 2010 revealed many disagreements among historians, but Rome’s fate was not that of Carthage or Dresden. Monumental buildings remained intact. Rome recovered, up to a point. But it was no longer seen as impregnable and, decades later, would be sacked again. A gradual depopulation began.

When their fury was spent, the Goths followed the Via Appia south, then veered off into the toe of Italy. The intended destination was North Africa, the breadbasket of Rome, where the Goths hoped they might find a place to call their own. They never made it: Storms forced their ships to turn back. Alaric suddenly took ill—with what, no one knows—and in a few days was dead.

His mode of burial, apparently following Gothic tradition, became the stuff of lore. A river near the present-day city of Cosenza was momentarily diverted and a grave dug in the riverbed. Alaric was interred, along with a trove of valuables. Then the river was restored to its course. The slaves who did the work were executed, consigning the whereabouts of the site to oblivion. Over the years, treasure-hunters including Heinrich Himmler have searched for the hoard of Alaric. In 2015, Cosenza launched a search of its own. So far, the treasure, if it ever existed, has proved more elusive than Alaric’s life story.

It is hardly Douglas Boin’s fault that the balance in his narrative between “the man” and “his times” is no balance at all. The scales tilt heavily toward Alaric’s times—a rich subject in its own right—and Boin renders the confusion of the era without replicating that confusion in his prose. Alaric can never emerge as a fully three-dimensional figure, but in Boin’s hands he is lifted convincingly from the realm of brutish caricature.

Though Boin doesn’t advance an explicit argument, a preoccupation lurks within his language. “Alaric’s actions,” he writes at one point, “forced a difficult, long-overdue conversation about acceptance, belonging, and the rights of immigrant communities.” That’s a very 21st-century formulation. Was there a Ravenna Ideas Festival? The collective term he uses for Goths, Vandals, Huns, and other groups is always “immigrants.” In his pages we encounter “border patrol,” “border separation,” “gated communities,” and “cultural warriors.” He refers to the Danube River as a “fence.” He describes a “new combustible mix of xenophobia and cultural supremacy” that encouraged public figures to work “populism and nationalism into their applause lines.” Alaric the Goth is not a polemic. It never invokes modern times explicitly. But the linguistic anachronisms are inescapable. Intended perhaps to be slyly allusive, they come across as winks.

“Presentism” is a snare. The 21st century is not the fifth. But history should provoke, and Boin has a point. Migration flows around the world today are unremitting. Group allegiance is fluid, and the distribution of power capricious. “Us” and “them” remain fundamental categories. There’s an American version of Romanitas, and even antagonists want a piece of it. General James Mattis once recalled interrogating a jihadist in Iraq—formerly Mesopotamia, that graveyard of Roman dreams. The man had been caught planting a roadside bomb. As he was led off to prison, he asked Mattis a question: When he got out, would it be possible to emigrate to America? Mattis appreciated the irony. Alaric might have too.