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Alaric

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia

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ALARIC (Ala-reiks, "All-ruler"), (c. 370-410), Gothic conqueror, the first Teutonic leader who stood as a conqueror in the city of Rome, was probably born about 370 in an island named Peuce (the Fir) at the mouth of the Danube. He was of noble descent, his father being a scion of the family of the Balthi or Bold-men, next in dignity among Gothic warriors to the Amals. He was a Goth and belonged to the western branch of that nation --sometimes called the Visigoths--who at the time of his birth were quartered in the region now known as Bulgaria, having taken refuge on the southern shore of the Danube from the pursuit of their enemies the Huns.

In the year 394 he served as a general of foederati (Gothic irregulars) under the emperor Theodosius in the campaign in which he crushed the usurper Eugenius. As the battle which terminated this campaign, the battle of the Frigidus, was fought near the passes of the Julian Alps, Alaric probably learnt at this time the weakness of the natural defences of Italy on her northeastern frontier. The employment of barbarians as foederali, which became a common practice with the emperors in the 4th century, was both a symptom of disease in the body politic of the empire and a hastener of its impending ruin. The provincial population, crushed under a load of unjust taxation, could no longer furnish soldiers in the numbers required for the defence of the empire; and on the other hand, the emperors, ever fearful that a brilliantly successful general of Roman extraction might be proclaimed Augustus by his followers, preferred that high military command should be in the hands of a man to whom such an accession of dignity was as yet impossible. But there was obviously a danger that one day a barbarian leader of barbarian troops in the service of the empire might turn his armed force and the skill in war, which he had acquired in that service, against his trembling masters, and without caring to assume the title of Augustus might ravage and ruin the countries which he had undertaken to defend. This danger became a reality when in the year 395 the able and valiant Theodosius died, leaving the empire to be divided between his imbecile sons Arcadius and Honorius, the former taking the eastern and the latter the western portion, and each under the control of a minister who bitterly hated the minister of the other.

In the shifting of offices which took place at the beginning of the new reigns, Alaric apparently hoped that he would receive one of the great war ministries of the empire, and thus instead of being a mere commander of irregulars would have under his orders a large part of the imperial legions. This, however, was denied him, and he found that he was doomed to remain an oflicer of foederati. His disappointed ambition prompted him to take the step for which his countrymen were longing, for they too were grumbling at the withdrawal of the "presents," in other words the veiled ransom-money, which for many years they had been accustomed to receive. They raised him on a shield and acclaimed him as a king; leader and followers both resolving (says Jordanes the Gothic historian) "rather to seek new kingdoms by their own labour, than to slumber in peaceful subjection to the rule of others."

Alaric struck first at the eastern empire. He marched to the neighbourhood of Constantinople, but finding himself unable to undertake the siege of that superbly strong city, he retraced his steps westward and then marched southward through Thessaly and the unguarded pass of Thermopylae into Greece. The details of his campaign are not very clearly stated, and the story is further complicated by the plots and counterplots of Rufinus, chief minister of the eastern, and Stilicho, the virtual regent of the western empire, and the murder of the former by his rebellious soldiers. With these we have no present concern; it is sufficient to say that Alaric's invasion of Greece lasted two years (395-396), that he ravaged Attica but spared Athens, which at once capitulated to the conqueror, that he penetrated into Peloponnesus and captured its most famous cities, Corinth, Argos and Sparta, selling many of their inhabitants into slavery. Here, however, his victorious career ended. Stilicho, who had come a second time to the assistance of Arcadius and who was undoubtedly a skilful general, succeeded in shutting up the Goths in the mountains of Pholoe on the borders of Elis and Arcadia.

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