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