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Alaric I

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Peter HeatherPeter Heather

Alaric I (d. 410) 

Visigothic leader. According to the 6th-century historian Zosimus, Alaric was originally the dissident leader of Roman troops protesting at his lack of promotion. But Zosimus has garbled Alaric’s early career in making the join between his two main historical sources—Eunapius and Olympiodorus. Two independent contemporary commentators—Claudian and Synesius—report that Alaric was actually the leader of a large-scale revolt among those Tervingi and Greuthungi who had been settled in the Balkans by treaty in the year 382, following the Battle of Adrianople of 378. This is much more likely to be correct. Over the next fifteen years Alaric proceeded to add two further major bodies of recruits. Following the fall of Stilicho in 408, many non-Roman soldiers attached to the Roman army of Italy defected to him. These were probably the higher-status warriors that Stilicho had recruited from the followers of Radagausius. Alaric’s numbers were further swelled by large numbers of runaway slaves during the siege of Rome in 409/10. During his career, Alaric thus created a larger military-political unit (at least c.20,000 warriors) than anything previously documented in the Gothic world.

This explains why the other great theme of Alaric’s career—finding a modus vivendi with Roman imperial power—found no final resolution. The treaty of 382 had granted the Goths continued autonomy in return for military support. But Gothic suspicions about the costs involved, manifest in a first rebellion during Theodosius I’s civil war against Magnus Maximus, were confirmed by the heavy losses the Goths suffered during Theodosius’ campaign against the usurper Eugenius in 393. Many were thus willing to unite behind Alaric in 395, and Alaric used their strength to force the East Roman regime dominated by the Praefectus Praetorio Eutropius to offer the Goths improved terms in 397: a generalship for Alaric himself and greater economic support for his followers. But this proved so unpopular in Constantinople that it was unilaterally revoked when Eutropius fell from power in 399, and none of his successors was willing to revive it. Alaric next tried the West by invading Italy in 401/2, but successful Roman resistance left the Goths in limbo until Stilicho’s need for military manpower—in the face of threatened outside invasion—led him to approach Alaric for an alliance in 405. Again, however, this proved unpopular in high Roman circles and was revoked on Stilicho’s fall, leading Alaric to return to Italy in force. This time, the Gothic leader’s strategy is well documented. Threatening Rome over eighteen months was not an end in itself, but a stratagem to force the Western Empire to negotiate. Alaric’s most ambitious demands would have inaugurated a virtual Gothic protectorate, making Alaric an imperial general with his forces resettled around Ravenna. But that was perhaps only a bargaining counter, because Alaric also proposed, with his military dominance—tellingly—at its height, that the Goths should be settled far away from the political centre and receive only limited annual grain subsidies. Political instability at the Roman centre and the intransigence of the Emperor Honorius made it impossible nonetheless to generate a settlement, and Alaric was eventually forced to allow his followers to sack Rome in August 410. He subsequently moved them south to threaten a crossing to Africa, but that failed and Alaric himself died in Calabria in late 410.

Peter Heather


PLRE II, Alaricus 1.

Heather, Fall of the Roman Empire, 213–32 and 462.Find this resource:

Wolfram, Goths, 136–61.Find this resource:

Ferrill, Fall of the Roman Empire, 90–104, 113–14.Find this resource: