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A rogue general and the sack of Rome

Alaric, the commander who led the sack of Rome in AD 410, is often depicted as a wild barbarian. In truth, he had had a long and distinguished career as a general in the Roman army.

Written by Brandon Thomas on

The eighteenth-century historian and politician Edward Gibbon, in his monumental history of the fall of the Roman Empire, wrote that in AD 410 the city of Rome was delivered to the fury of the “tribes of Germania and Scythia” (ed. 1993, p. 208).

In a similar vein, the esteemed historian Thomas Hodgkin, in 1891, commented that in AD 410, the Roman Empire was horrified by the idea that a flaxen-haired barbarian conqueror from the north had taken, sacked, and dishonoured the city of Rome (Hodgkin 1891, pp. 16-17).

For generations, this has given us an image of skin-clad barbarians, led by a brutal conqueror and inspired by their hatred for Rome, rampaging through the city, burning as they went. While Rome was undoubtedly sacked in AD 410 by an army commanded by the Gothic-born Alaric, the reality is different and somewhat more complicated than these jejune descriptions allow for.

Over Rome’s long history, she had been captured many times by invading armies. However, besides the Gallic sack around 390 BC, these had always been armies led by Romans. The year 410 is now infamous because it is said to be the first time in 800 years that invading “barbarians” – i.e. non-citizens – had captured Rome.

Yet, this Sack of Rome should be placed more in the context of a civil conflict. The man who led the assault, Alaric, was an ex-Roman officer, leading troops who had previously served in the Roman armies, and who had his powerbase and supporters entirely within the Roman Empire.

Alaric’s early career

Alaric had a long association with the Roman state prior to 410. Although he probably did not have the coveted status of Roman citizenship, he was strongly Roman in character and was a Roman officer by at least 394. A large number of Goths had been settled by Emperor Theodosius I (379-395 AD) on the Danube frontier as farming communities by a treaty in 382 AD and it was here that Alaric was likely recruited (Sivan 1987, pp. 759-762).

In 394, Alaric participated in Theodosius’ campaign against the usurper Eugenius, being placed under the command of Flavius Stilicho, one of Theodosius’ top generals. During this campaign Alaric held a minor command leading an auxiliary unit comprising “barbarians” of mixed-race. Emperor Theodosius had largely reestablished the old Roman policy of employing a corps of “barbarian” auxiliaries alongside the regular army, some of which were Rome’s best troops.

These auxiliaries were commanded by Roman officers of “barbarian” extraction holding the rank of tribune (Burns 1994, pp. 108-111). While the regular army accepted both Roman and non-Romans into its ranks, the auxiliaries only accepted those who were “barbarian”-born and served under different (often better) conditions. This tended to create tension between the regular soldiers and the auxiliaries (Zosimus 5.35.5-6). Those who joined the ranks of the auxiliaries tended to keep elements of their original culture, however many of them were just as Roman as the Romans (Southern and Dixon 1996, p. 50).

Alaric likely held the rank of tribune during the campaign against Eugenius and as he was leading a mixed force of auxiliaries, his unit did not comprise only Goths. The auxiliary troops in Theodosius’ army, especially the Goths, suffered heavy casualties in the campaign, which probably created some resentment for their commanders (Heather 1991, p. 199).

Alaric believed that his experience entitled him to a command in the regular army, and after Theodosius’ victory, Alaric was promoted to the rank of comes, but still retained command of the same auxiliary unit (Zosimus 5.5.4; Burns 1994, p. 106). Even though the rank of comes was a prestigious appointment, he was disappointed (Zosimus 5. 5. 4).

His passing over for command would become the catalyst for his later rebellion and the events that followed. Throughout his career, whether he was in the employ of the Romans or as their enemy, Alaric continued to associate with members of the Roman government, high-ranking commanders, and elements of the Roman nobility (Thompson 1963, p. 111). Thus, although Alaric’s career path was somewhat unusual; it was still Roman.

Rebellion

In 395, upon the death of emperor Theodosius and with the bulk of the Roman army located in the western provinces, Alaric rebelled with the clear aim of forcing a higher military command from the Eastern Roman government.

Along with the auxiliary unit already under his command, Alaric’s rebellion attracted other discontented auxiliary units and others who were unhappy with the conditions in which they found themselves, such as the Goths settled under the 382 treaty (Burns 1994, p. 153; Kulikowski 2008, p. 165).

These Gothic settlers were unhappy with the conditions of the treaty which bound them to the empire. Thus, they saw Alaric as an opportunity to rewrite the treaty to be more favourable to their people. Perhaps they saw full integration into the empire as Roman citizens as their goal (Wolfram 1997, pp. 92-93).

Alaric’s rapidly established army and supporters are now known as the Visigoths, however there were more than merely Goths amongst them. They were a gathering of mixed “barbarians” (and quite possibly Romans as well), who had previously served in the Rome’s armies and their wars. Alaric’s support and his forces were entirely based within this system.

Alaric had no connections or support base outside the empire and his ambitions were for a more prestigious position within the Roman Empire. His followers saw Alaric as the means by which they could be better integrated in the Roman Empire. Neither hatred for Rome nor a desire for its destruction motivated Alaric or his followers (Kulikowski 2008, p. 157).

The Eastern Roman general

In 397, Alaric finally received the military command he wanted. Using political maneuvering and by militarily threatening the city of Constantinople, Alaric forced the Eastern Roman government to appoint him to a high military office, most likely that of magistermilitum per Illyricum (Claudian, Eutr. 2. 216; Cameron 1970, p. 173; Heather 1991, p. 199).

This was a very significant appointment. The magister militum per Illyricum was effectively a field marshal responsible for Roman forces in the prefecture of Illyricum (modern day North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece). Alaric was now, officially, one of Rome’s highest generals, with right to requisition from the civilian government. Alaric also gained access to money and the region’s arms and armour factories, with which he could equip his followers.

It is not known what happened to Alaric’s army and followers which made his appointment a reality. It has been suggested that they may have returned to their original area of settlement (which now fell within Alaric’s sphere of command), or they may have been billeted on the local civilian populations, a common practice in the regular army (Kulikowski 2008, pp. 167-168).

Even though Alaric now had command of regular Roman units, it is likely that he retained his original force of rebellious auxiliary units. However, this force was now loyal to their commander, not the Roman state, and was not reincorporated into the official command structure. Thus, it must have constituted an, essentially illegal, private army. A private army, being funded and equipped by the resources of the Roman State.

Against the west

Alaric appears to have been content in this role as an eastern magister militum. There were no events of note that have been reported and he seems to have largely kept the peace. However, the Eastern Roman government was becoming increasingly hostile to the idea of having “barbarian”-born officers commanding their army, regardless of how “Roman” they were in practice.

As a result, Alaric was stripped of his command around AD 400, placing his political and military future in limbo. Another general, Gainas, received a similar fate which resulted in his death in 400 (Heather 2005, p. 215). Unlike in 395, the Eastern Roman government was in too strong a position to be bullied into reinstating his command, so Alaric decided to try the same tactic against the Western Roman Government based at Milan in northern Italy (from 402 onwards, the emperor was based at Ravenna in northern Italy).

Most of the Roman army which was normally in the region was north of the Alps, so Alaric envisaged an attempt to kidnap the emperor, Honorius, who had been left largely unprotected. In 401, Alaric managed to again gather an army of supporters and entered Italy.

However, the timely arrival of the Roman army led by Stilicho, Alaric’s old commander and now supreme commander of the Western Roman army, forced him to retreat. Stilicho did not pursue, and for the next several years, Alaric remained undisturbed in the region of Noricum, what is today a part of modern Austria and Slovenia (Kulikowski 2008, p. 170).

The Western Roman general

Alaric’s limbo in Noricum effectively came to an end in 405 when Stilicho decided he needed the disgraced general and his auxiliary troops. The Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire were effectively in a state of cold war, and Alaric was needed in the political and military maneuvering that this entailed.

Therefore, through negotiations, Stilicho managed to convince the emperor to appoint Alaric as the Western Roman military commander in Illyricum (Sozomen 9.4). Some sources state this title to have been magister militum per Illyricum, however such a position did not exist in the west. Moreover, the contemporary historian, Orosius, referred to him as a comes of Rome (Orosius 2. 3. 3).

Thus, it is much more likely he was appointed as comes Illyrici, not as prestigious an appointment as his previous command, yet still an important position. It was in this position that Alaric made some notable contacts within the Western Government, such as the praetorian prefect Jovius. These contacts supported Alaric’s agenda from within the Western Government.

Once again Alaric was now a Roman general with a regular command, this time in service to the Western Empire (Goldsworthy 2009, p. 295; Kulikowski 2008, p. 171).

The sack of Rome

Alaric’s new position lasted three years. In 408, Stilicho’s political opponents accused him of treason against the emperor which resulted in his execution. Alaric was considered an associate of Stilicho and so lost his command and was now considered an enemy of the state (Zosimus 5.36.1-2).

Stilicho’s execution, however, caused further friction between the regular army and the auxiliaries stationed in Italy. Auxiliaries were murdered by regular soldiers throughout Italy, during which the government failed to restrain them. This led to thousands of auxiliaries joining Alaric in the hope that he would be better able to support them (Zosimus 5.35.6).

With his increase in troops, Alaric finally marched on Rome, not to capture it, but to use the city as a hostage in negotiations with the emperor. Many of the emperor’s most experienced auxiliary troops were now fighting against him, leaving him reluctant to use the now diminished army in Italy to engage them.

When Alaric arrived at Rome, the Senate was unsure of who actually commanded this army. They believed it was another disgraced associate of Stilicho (Zosimus 5.40.2). The procedures employed by Alaric’s army must have been indistinguishable from that of any other Roman army and his soldiers, as ex-Roman soldiers, would have been equipped in the same way.

For the next two years Alaric besieged Rome on and off whilst engaging in negotiations, first with the Senate and then the emperor. Alaric’s demands were clear: he wanted the position of magister militum, land for his troops to settle, regular supplies of food to feed them, and money to pay them. In many ways, these demands are not so different from those of Late Republican generals, such as Marius and Julius Caesar. The emperor was distrustful of Alaric and all the negotiations came to naught (Burns 1994, p. 227).

In 409, the Senate became impatient with the emperor and invited Alaric to meet them in Rome. During this meeting the Senate declared one of their own, the urban prefect (governor) of Rome, Priscus Attalus, as the new emperor to rival Honorius. Alaric put his support behind Attalus, who appointed him magister militum and gave him command of their forces. A large part of Italy sided with Attalus. However, friction between him and Alaric resulted in Attalus being deposed by his general, who reopened negotiations with Honorius (Goldsworthy 2009, p. 301).

The last attempt at a compromise between Alaric and Honorius occurred in 410 at a conference near the emperor’s home at Ravenna. Once again, the forms these negotiations took is reminiscent of conferences between Late Republican generals.

Unfortunately, one of the emperor’s generals, a man named Sarus who was opposed to any agreements with Alaric, went rogue and attacked some of Alaric’s troops. An angered Alaric returned to Rome with his army, in frustration rather than any desire to destroy the city. On the 24th of August 410, starving civilians within Rome opened the city to Alaric’s army which resulted in the infamous sack of Rome.

Unlike the common depiction of semi-naked “barbarians” storming through the city led by a bloody conqueror, this sack was led by a man who had been a Roman general, leading rebellious elements of the Roman army, utilising Roman equipment and tactics in a conflict that was entirely internal to the Roman Empire.

This is a far cry from the traditional depiction of the assault (Burns 1994, p. 245). The Sack of Rome by the Vandals in AD 455 is much closer to how the event is generally perceived, yet it does not get the attention that 410 does.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Thomas S. Burns, Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, ca. 375-425 AD (1994).
  • Alan Cameron, Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (1970).
  • Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 3 (1993 [1781]).
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Slow Death of the Roman Superpower (2009).
  • Peter Heather, Goths and Romans 332-489 (1991).
  • Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005).
  • Thomas Hodgkin, Theodoric: The Barbarian Champion of Civilisation (1891).
  • Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric (2008)
  • Hagith Sivan, “On Foederati, Hospitalitas, and the Settlement of the Goths in AD 418”, American Journal of Philology 108.4 (1987), pp. 759-772.
  • Pat Southern and Karen Ramsay Dixon. The Late Roman Army (1996).
  • E.A. Thompson, “The Visigoths from Fritigern to Euric”, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 12.1 (1963), pp. 105-126.
  • Herwig Wolfram, The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples (1997; transl. Thomas Dunlap).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.