Some people are born to greatness; whereas others have greatness thrust upon them. Still others wait until the right time, then go to the right place and wait for something good to happen. There was no better time than the late fourth century to be a Roman-slapping Visigoth king. And there was no better Roman-slapping Visigoth than Alaric.
Alaric was born in 370 ACE in what is now Romania and will someday be a fire-gutted theme park. He was born at a time when the Visigoths were living in Bulgaria. They had moved to Bulgaria to avoid the Huns. To this day, this is still the only acceptable reason to move to Bulgaria.
By the time Alaric was six years old, the Visigoths had fled to the edges of the Roman Empire and were asking to borrow a cup of asylum. What choice did Emperor Valens have? In a brilliant move, he began training the horde of homeless barbarians militarily. Soon, he would have entire legions of Visigoths who would hardly notice that the Romans were sending a disproportionate number of them on suicide missions. And, if they did notice, what were they going to do about it? Rise up and sack most of Rome? Yeah, I’d like to see them try it!
As a soldier in the Roman army, Alaric noticed things…important things. Among these things was how poorly Rome was defended from the north. The first line of defense was the Alps. If the enemy made it through the Alps, they had to contend with a small crew of centurions, whose primary function was to say, “Uh-oh!”, when an army managed to figure out the mountain passes. Alaric probably remembered the conditions of the northern border only to pop a quick memo off to the current emperor, Theodosius.
The Romans could sense danger all around them and took great pains to start destroying the empire themselves. With the death of Theodosius, they split the empire into two parts with two rulers. One of the rulers had no interest in ruling; whereas the other wasn’t an adult, yet. This type of government is referred to, by historians, as a mediocracy. The Eastern Empire was run, unofficially, by Stilicho for the official emperor Arcadius, who would’ve rather played video games. Honorius, the minor, had Stilicho as his official regent.
Stilicho was a general in the Roman Army. His father was a Vandal, which was bad news for their neighbor’s mailbox; and, his mother was Roman. He rose to prominence when he successfully negotiated a peace treaty with Persia over who had to take Armenia. For this, Emperor Theodosius provided him with a new title, comes stabuli, and a new wife, Theodosius’ niece. Theodosius trusted the man so much that he made him guardian of his son, Honorius. Stilicho was in like flint, in the catbird seat and under the Mas Oyama.
And, his friend Alaric was doing pretty well for himself, as well. After bitter fighting in the Alps where the Visigoths were performing their usual duties as human shields for the centurions, they suddenly reached an inconvenient epiphany. Spontaneously, they made Alaric their king and raised him up on their shields. Alaric was just as surprised as anyone and didn’t even have a speech made up. His people decided to find their own kingdom, rather than work under Roman rule. If that kingdom happened to be already occupied, this could be handled with a simple storming.
He marched his army to Constantinople. Unfortunately, there were walls around the city and he’d left his catapult in his other tunic. The Visigoths decided to work their way up to walled cities, starting first with defenseless ones, then perhaps one on a slight incline. Greece was chock full of slightly inclined cities, so they took off south. The eastern General, Rufinus tried to reason with Alaric; to convey their displeasure, his own soldiers hacked him to death. Stilicho, being unhacked and remarkably spry for his age, rode to meet Alaric in battle. He was just a few inches away from destroying the Visigoths when he was ordered back by Arcadius. The Visigoths breathed a collective sigh of relief, then continued looting Greece.
After the Visigoths had looted cities like Argos, Sparta, Athens and Corinth, Stilicho took another crack at Alaric. Again, the Roman general was THIS close…maybe less than an inch, when, what do you think, Emperor Arcadius called him back. Alaric went north and looted until the Eastern Empire made him a Roman general. He sat around thinking for about four years, but couldn’t come up with anything that the Western Roman Empire had done for him, lately. So, in 401 ACE, Alaric went off to invade Italy.
At first, Alaric didn’t have much luck. He lost two major battles and a cap on one of his back teeth. These losses were the result of Stilicho walking the walk. Fortunately, Alaric had a powerful ally in his quest to destroy Rome: Rome. After beating back the Visigoths from Rome’s northern border, Stilicho was rewarded with an all expenses paid trip to the afterlife by Emperor Honorius; in fact, Honorius, to be on the safe side, decided to also kill Stilicho’s friends, associates and anyone who might’ve gone down the slide after him in first grade.
This was not good news for friends of Stilicho…but GREAT news for Alaric, who suddenly found thirty thousand new Roman recruits asking HIM for asylum. Without Stilicho, attacking Rome became as simple as falling off a log, getting up and then crossing the Alps. Laying siege to Rome was so simple that even a Visigoth could do it: You simply had to wait outside and make sure that there was no one strolling out of the city. As Romans began to buckle down and eat each other, the Senate tried to frighten Alaric with the thought of a million desperate Romans flooding out of the city at the Visigoths. In Alaric’s opinion, the Roman citizens would confine their flooding to behind the walls of the city. He was right…
Eventually, the Senate gave in and provided Alaric with all kinds of valuable prizes: Gold, silver, pepper…a few “buy one get one free” coupons thrown in for good measure. He was mollified and went away for a while. He realized, like many of us when we get back from the grocery store, that he’d forgotten the main reason he laid siege to Rome: To get a kingdom for his people. So, he loaded up his horse and went back to Rome, making sure to word his request in a respectful and threatening way.
Honorius would hear nothing of it. He had the courage of his convictions and of the fact that he was far away from Rome at the time. The Senate felt that Honorius needed a rest, so they appointed their own emperor, Priscus Attalus. Attalus was more of a “people person” and, before you could say, “For God’s sake, lift the blockade”, they came to an agreement.
However, this did not last long. He tried to negotiate with Honorius again and left in a bad mood. He went to Rome one more time…and this time, he entered the city. They showed more restraint than you might think: They only killed the men that they saw and only raped women with all four of their limbs. The Visigoths did not molest the churches and did not violate the rules of sanctuary. Church attendance was higher, during the sacking, than it had ever been. Having gotten that off of his chest, he continued south, to take over Africa.
Visigoths are terrible sailors and much of Alaric’s army was lost at sea. Others were just pretending to be lost to avoid going to work the next day. Alaric himself caught a fever and died at the age of forty. He was buried in a river bed that had been diverted for the purpose of the burial. Then, the river covered the grave. The gravediggers were executed so that Alaric’s final resting place would be a secret.
Good luck finding gravediggers to bury those gravediggers…