Alaric I (Alareiks in the original Gothic; Alarik or Alarich in modern Germanic languages; Alaricus in Latin; and Alarico in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish), was likely born about 370 on an island named Peuce (the Fir) at the mouth of the Danube. He was king of the Visigoths from 395–410 and the first Germanic leader to take the city of Rome. Having originally desired to settle his people in the Roman Empire, he finally sacked the city, marking the decline of imperial power in the west.
Alaric, whose name means literally "king of all" was well-born, his father kindred to the Balti, a tribe competing with the Amali among Gothic fighters. He belonged to the western Gothic branch, the Visigoths. At the time of his birth the Visigoths dwelt in Bulgaria, having fled beyond the wide estuary marshes of the Danube to its southern shore so as not to be followed by their foe from the steppe, the Huns.
In 394 Alaric served as a leader of foederati under Theodosius I in the campaign in which the usurper Eugenius was crushed. As the Battle of the Frigidus, which terminated this campaign, was fought at the passes of the Julian Alps, Alaric probably learned the weakness of Italy's natural defences on its northeastern frontier at the head of the Adriatic.
Theodosius died in 395, leaving the empire to be divided between his two sons Arcadius and Honorius, the former taking the eastern and the latter the western portion of the empire. Arcadius showed little interest in ruling, leaving most of the actual power to his Praetorian Prefect Rufinus. Honorius was still a minor; as his guardian, Theodosius had appointed the magister militum Stilicho. Stilicho also claimed to be the guardian of Arcadius, causing much rivalry between the western and eastern courts.
According to Edward Gibbon, in the shifting of offices which took place at the beginning of the new reigns, Alaric apparently hoped he would be promoted from the position of a mere commander of federates to a general of one of the regular armies. This was denied him, however. Among the Visigoths, settled in Lower Moesia, the situation was ripe for rebellion. At Frigidus they had suffered disproportionately great losses, according to rumour, exposing them in battle was a convenient way of weakening the Gothic tribes. Their rewards after the campaign had also been lacking. So they raised Alaric on a shield and proclaimed him king; leader and followers both resolving (says Jordanes the Gothic historian) "rather to seek new kingdoms by their own work, than to slumber in peaceful subjection to the rule of others."
The armies of the eastern empire were occupied with Hunnic incursions in Asia Minor and Syria. Instead Rufinus attempted to negotiate with Alaric in person. The only results were suspicions in Constantinople that Rufinius was in league with the Goths. Stilicho now marched east against Alaric. According to Claudian, Stilicho was in a position to destroy the Goths, when he was ordered by Arcadius to leave Illyricum. Soon after Rufinus was hacked to death by his own soldiers. Power in Constantinople now passed to the eunuch chamberlain Eutropius.
The death of Rufinus and departure of Stilicho gave free rein to Alaric's movements: he ravaged Attica but spared Athens, which at once capitulated to the conqueror. In 396 he wiped out the last remnants of the Mysteries at Eleusis in Attica, ending a tradition of esoteric religious ceremonies that had lasted since the Bronze Age. Then he penetrated into the Peloponnesus and captured its most famous cities—Corinth, Argos, and Sparta—selling many of their inhabitants into slavery.
Here, however, his victorious career suffered a serious setback. In 397 Stilicho crossed by sea to Greece and succeeded in shutting up the Goths in the mountains of Pholoe on the borders of Elis and Arcadia in the peninsula. From there Alaric escaped with difficulty, and not without some suspicion of connivance on the part of Stilicho, who supposedly again had received orders to depart. Alaric then crossed the Gulf of Corinth and marched with the plunder of Greece northwards to Epirus. Here his rampage continued until the eastern government appointed him magister militum per Illyricum, giving him the Roman command he had desired and authority to resupply his men from the imperial arsenals.
Stilicho's enemies later reproached him for having gained his victory by taking impious advantage of the great Christian festival. Alaric, too, was a Christian, though an Arian not Orthodox. He had trusted to the sanctity of Easter for immunity from attack.
The wife of Alaric is said to have been taken prisoner after this battle; and there is some reason to suppose that he was hampered in his movements by the presence with his forces of large numbers of women and children, which gave to his invasion of Italy the character of a human migration.
After another defeat before Verona, Alaric left Italy, probably in 403. He had not indeed "penetrated to the city" but his invasion of Italy had produced important results. It had caused the imperial residence to be transferred from Milan to Ravenna and it had necessitated the withdrawal of Legio XX Valeria Victrix from Britain.
But three months later Stilicho himself and the chief ministers of his party were treacherously slain on the orders of Honorius. In the disturbances that followed, throughout Italy the wives and children of the foederati were slain. The natural consequence of all this was that these men, to the number of 30,000, flocked to the camp of Alaric, clamouring to be led against their cowardly enemies. He accordingly led them across the Julian Alps and, in September 408, stood before the walls of Rome (now with no capable general like Stilicho as a defender) and began a strict blockade.
No blood was shed this time; hunger was the weapon on which Alaric relied. When the ambassadors of the Senate, in treating for peace, tried to terrify him with their hints of what the despairing citizens might accomplish, he gave with a laugh his celebrated answer: "The thicker the hay, the easier mowed!" After much bargaining, the famine-stricken citizens agreed to pay a ransom of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. Thus ended Alaric's first siege of Rome.
At this time, and indeed throughout his career, Alaric's primary goal was not to pull down the fabric of the empire but to secure for himself, by negotiation with its rulers, a regular and recognized position within its borders. His demands were certainly large— the concession of a block of territory 200 miles long by 150 wide between the Danube and the Gulf of Venice (to be held probably on some terms of nominal dependence on the empire) and the title of commander-in-chief of the imperial army—but, great as these terms were, the emperor would probably have been well advised to grant them. Honorius, however, refused to look beyond the question of his own personal safety, guaranteed as it was by the dikes and marshes of Ravenna. As all attempts to conduct a satisfactory negotiation with this emperor failed, Alaric, after instituting a second siege and blockade of Rome in 409, came to terms with the senate. With their consent he set up a rival emperor, the prefect of the city, a Greek named Priscus Attalus.
Attalus, however, proved quite unfit for his high position; he rejected the advice of Alaric and lost in consequence the province of Africa, the granary of Rome, which was defended by the partisans of Honorius. The weapon of famine, formerly in the hand of Alaric, was thus turned against him, and loud in consequence were the murmurs of the Roman populace. Honorius was also greatly strengthened by the arrival of six legions sent to his assistance from Constantinople by his nephew Theodosius II.
Alaric therefore cashiered his puppet emperor, after the latter's eleven months of ineffectual rule, and once more tried to reopen negotiations with Honorius. These negotiations would probably have succeeded but for the malign influence of another Goth, Sarus, an Amali and therefore a hereditary enemy of Alaric and his house. When Alaric found himself once more outwitted by the machinations of such a foe, he marched southward and began in deadly earnest his third, his ever-memorable siege of Rome. No defence apparently was possible; there are hints, not well substantiated, of treachery; there is greater probability of surprise. However, this may be—for our information at this point of the story is meagre—on August 24, 410, Alaric and his Visigoths burst in by the Porta Salaria on the northeast of the city. Rome, which had for so long defeated its enemies, now lay at the feet of foreign enemies.
The contemporary ecclesiastics recorded with wonder many instances of the Visigoths' clemency: Christian churches saved from ravage; protection granted to vast multitudes both of pagans and Christians who took refuge therein; vessels of gold and silver which were found in a private dwelling, spared because they "belonged to St. Peter"; at least one case in which a beautiful Roman matron appealed, not in vain, to the better feelings of the Gothic soldier who attempted her dishonor. But even these exceptional instances show that Rome was not entirely spared those scenes of horror which usually accompany the storming of a besieged city. Nonetheless, the written sources do not tell of any damage wrought by fire, save in the case of the Gardens of Sallust, which were situated close to the gate by which the Goths had made their entrance; nor is there any reason to attribute any extensive destruction of the buildings of the city to Alaric and his followers. The Basilica Aemilia in the Roman Forum did burn down, which perhaps can be attributed to Alaric: the archaeological evidence was provided by coins dating from 410 found melted in the floor. The pagan emperors tombs of the Mausoleum of Augustus and Castel Sant'Angelo were rifled and the ashes scattered.
Alaric, having penetrated to the city, marched southwards into Calabria. He desired to invade Africa, which on account of its grain was now the key to holding Italy firmly, but his ships were dashed to pieces by a storm in which many of his soldiers perished. He died soon afterward in Cosenza, probably of fever, at the early age of about forty (assuming again, a birth around 370), and his body was, according to legend, buried under the riverbed of the Busento. The stream was temporarily turned aside from its course while the grave was dug wherein the Gothic chief and some of his most precious spoils were interred; when the work was finished the river was turned back into its usual channel and the captives by whose hands the labor had been accomplished were put to death that none might learn their secret.
Alaric was succeeded in the command of the Gothic army by his brother-in-law, Ataulf, who three years later married Honorius' sister Gallia Placidia
Our chief authorities for the career of Alaric are four: the historian Orosius and the poet Claudian, both contemporary, neither disinterested; Zosimus, a somewhat prejudiced pagan historian who lived probably about half a century after the death of Alaric; and Jordanes, a Goth who wrote the history of his nation in the year 551, basing his work on The Trojan War when he fought the Romans. It is from Jordanes comes the legend of Alaric burial in the Busento River.