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Famous Men of The Middle Ages
Alaric the Visigoth
by Haaren, John H. (LL.D.) and Poland, A. B. (Ph.D.)


King from 394-410 A.D.

I

Long before the beginning of the period known as the Middle Ages a tribe of barbarians called the Goths lived north of the River Danube in the country which is now known as Roumania. It was then a part of the great Roman Empire, which at that time had two capitals, Constantinople--the new city of Constantine--and Rome. The Goths had come from the shores of the Baltic Sea and settled on this Roman territory, and the Romans had not driven them back.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Valens some of the Goths joined a conspiracy against him. Valens punished them for this by crossing the Danube and laying waste their country. At last the Goths had to beg for mercy. The Gothic chief was afraid to set foot on Roman soil, so he and Valens met on their boats in the middle of the Danube and made a treaty of peace.

For a long time the Goths were at war with another tribe of barbarians called Huns. Sometimes the Huns defeated the Goths and drove them to their camps in the mountains. Sometimes the Goths came down to the plains again and defeated the Huns.

At last the Goths grew tired of such constant fighting and thought they would look for new settlements. They sent some of their leading men to the Emperor Valens to ask permission to settle in some country belonging to Rome. The messengers said to the emperor:

"If you will allow us to make homes in the country south of the Danube we will be friends of Rome and fight for her when she needs our help."

The emperor at once granted this request. He said to the Gothic chiefs:

"Rome always needs good soldiers. Your people may cross the Danube and settle on our land. As long as you remain true to Rome we will protect you against your enemies."

These Goths were known as Visigoths, or Western Goths. Other tribes of Goths who had settled in southern Russia, were called Ostrogoths, or Eastern Goths.

After getting permission from the Emperor Valens a large number of the Visigoths crossed the Danube with their families and their cattle and settled in the country now called Bulgaria.

In course of time they became a very powerful nation, and in the year 394 they chose as their king one of the chiefs named Alaric. He was a brave man and a great soldier. Even when a child he took delight in war, and at the age of sixteen he fought as bravely as the older soldiers.

One night, not long after he became king, Alaric had a very strange dream. He thought he was driving in a golden chariot through the streets of Rome amid the shouts of the people, who hailed him as emperor. This dream made a deep impression on his mind. He was always thinking of it, and at last he began to have the idea that he could make the dream come true.

"To be master of the Roman Empire," he said to himself, "that is indeed worth trying for; and why should I not try? With my brave soldiers I can conquer Rome, and I shall make the attempt."

So Alaric called his chiefs together and told them what he had made up his mind to do.

The chiefs gave a cry of delight for they approved of the king's proposal. In those days fighting was almost the only business of chiefs, and they were always glad to be at war, especially when there was hope of getting rich spoils. And so the Visigoth chiefs rejoiced at the idea of war against Rome, for they knew that if they were victorious they would have the wealth of the richest city of the world to divide among themselves.

Soon they got ready a great army. With Alaric in command, they marched through Thrace and Macedonia and before long reached Athens. There were now no great warriors in Athens, and the city surrendered to Alaric. The Goths plundered the homes and temples of the Athenians and then marched to the state of Elis, in the southwestern part of Greece. Here a famous Roman general named Stilicho besieged them in their camp. Alaric managed to force his way through the lines of the Romans and escaped. He marched to Epirus. This was a province of Greece that lay on the east side of the Ionian Sea. Arcadius, the Emperor of the East, now made Alaric governor of this district and a large region lying near it. The whole territory was called Eastern Illyricum and formed part of the Eastern Empire.

II

Alaric now set out to make an attack on Rome, the capital of the Western Empire. As soon as Honorius, Emperor of the West, learned that Alaric was approaching, he fled to a strong fortress among the mountains of North Italy. His great general Stilicho came to his rescue and defeated Alaric near Verona. But even after this Honorius was so afraid of Alaric that he made him governor of a part of his empire called Western Illyricum and gave him a large yearly income.

Honorius, however, did not keep certain of his promises to Alaric, who consequently, in the year 408, marched to Rome and besieged it. The cowardly emperor fled to Ravenna, leaving his generals to make terms with Alaric. It was agreed that Alaric should withdraw from Rome upon the payment of 5,000 pounds of gold and 30,000 pounds of silver.

When Honorius read the treaty he refused to sign it. Alaric then demanded that the city be surrendered to him, and the people, terrified, opened their gates and even agreed that Alaric should appoint another emperor in place of Honorius.

This new emperor, however, ruled so badly that Alaric thought it best to restore Honorius. Then Honorius, when just about to be treated so honorably, allowed a barbarian chief who was an ally of his to make an attack upon Alaric. The attack was unsuccessful, and Alaric immediately laid siege to Rome for the third time. The city was taken and Alaric's dream came true. In a grand procession he rode at the head of his army through the streets of the great capital.

Then began the work of destruction. The Goths ran in crowds through the city, wrecked private houses and public buildings and seized everything of value they could find. Alaric gave orders that no injury should be done to the Christian churches, but other splendid buildings of the great city were stripped of the beautiful and costly articles that they contained, and all the gold and silver was carried away from the public treasury.

In the midst of the pillage Alaric dressed himself in splendid robes and sat upon the throne of the emperor, with a golden crown upon his head.

While Alaric was sitting on the throne thousands of Romans were compelled to kneel down on the ground before him and shout out his name as conqueror and emperor. Then the theaters and circuses were opened, and Roman athletes and gladiators had to give performances for the amusement of the conquerors. After six days of pillage and pleasure Alaric and his army marched through the gates, carrying with them the riches of Rome.

Alaric died on his way to Sicily, which he had thought to conquer also. He felt his death coming and ordered his men to bury him in the bed of the river Busento and to put into his grave the richest treasures that he had taken from Rome.

This order was carried out. A large number of Roman slaves were set to work to dig a channel and turn the water of the Busento into it. They made the grave in the bed of the river, put Alaric's body into and closed it up. Then the river was turned back to its old channel. As soon as the grave was covered up, and the water flowed over it, the slaves who had done the work were put to death by the Visigoth chiefs.

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