Alaric and the Goths played an active part in the downfall of the Western Roman Empire.
The origins of the Goths is still quite a puzzle for modern historians and archaeologists, though some of the written evidence dating from around the second century suggests that they were settled around modern day Poland. It is believed by many that they originated from the Baltic region and possibly from Gotland in Sweden.
The Goths moved south east splitting into two separate distinct groups, Ostrogoths or Eastern Goths and the Visigoths, who settled in Dacia. In 236 AD they made their first contact with the Roman Empire, with incursions across the river Danube. The Goths slowly absorbed Roman culture over a period of time.
Ulfilas, a follower of the Arian God, was the first to convert the pagan Goths to Christianity during the mid fourth century. He is also responsible for the translation of the bible to Gothic, there are some surviving pieces of the text, known as the Codex Argenteus or Silver Bible.
It was the growing power of the Huns that finally displaced the Gothic tribes and pushed them into the Roman empire. The Ostrogoths were pushed westward by the Huns, which in turn pushed the Visigoths into the Romans. Valens allowed the Visigoths to settle in the depopulated regions of upper Macedonian providence. The aim was that the Goths would act as a buffer zone against the encroaching Huns. Problems were created by corrupt local Roman officials who mistreated the Goths, this mistreatment led to the Goths breaking their treaty with Rome.
The Visigoths rebelled plundering the countryside, which resulted in the attack and siege of Adrianople in August 378 AD. The Goths defeated the last field army of the Roman Empire. They decimated the Roman Military, after this event the empire was forced to rely on mercenaries and the Foederati.
Athanius, Gothic leader, made peace with the Empire and emperor Theodosius. The Goths rejoined the empire, providing troops for the army and again acting as a buffer zone to the barbarian Huns. The Goths also now sent young nobles to Constantinople. These were to act as hostages, but the aim was also to Romanise the young nobles in the hope of fully integrating them into the empire. Whilst there they also received a first class education in the Roman military. The empire hoped that these future leaders would be more at home with the Roman way of life, and become active members of the Roman Military machine, thus persuading the Goths to become extended members of the Roman Empire. One of these young nobles sent to Constantinople was a young Alaric. Whilst in the Eastern Empire capital he met another young future leader, Stilicho, who would eventually become the last great defender of the Western Roman Empire.
In 394 AD, both Alaric and Stilicho, accompanied Theodosius along with the Roman army westward to deal with the pretender to the throne Eqnatius, who was supported by the Frankish King Arbogast. Alaric and his gothic troops fought against Eqnatius and Arbogast in the Eastern Alps . After a hard and furiously fought campaign the pretenders were defeated. Afterward Alaric believed he and his men had been used, that his men had been sacrificed and used as fodder during the campaign.
In 395 AD Theodosius died, the Empire was divided into two between his sons Honorius, who commanded the west, and Arcadius who ruled the eastern half of the empire. Alaric believed he was undervalued as a leader and was extremely bitter towards the ruling elite of the empire because he felt he hadn’t been given a position of high command.
The Goths wanted a kingdom of their own to command and Alaric wanted a position of importance and authority. The gothic tribes declared Alaric king of the Goths. He then led his people and army against Constantinople, travelling through and plundering Greece. They conquered several cities, some of which included Sparta, Corinth and Argos, before reaching the Eastern Capital.
During this time the Goths learnt cavalry warfare and tactics. The use of the heavy cavalry horse became the favoured military tactic of the Gothic leaders. The cavalry used a heavy lance called a kontos and carried several light javelins. Many on the Roman infantry units neither had the discipline or the stomach to stand against a Gothic cavalry charge. The Gothic army had the advantage of being highly mobile, due to having a minimal baggage train. Alaric and the Goths terrorised the Greek people for a period of two years, until Stilicho arrived with a Roman army. The Gothic army took to ships and escaped over the Corinthian gulf and moved northwards.
Another Gothic leader Radagaisus built an army which contained a multitude of warriors from different cultures and nations, these included Roman deserters and slaves. They crossed the Danube river and headed down to Italy with 20-40,000 warriors. They marched and plundered their way down to Florence. Stilicho reacted by marching a force of 20,000 Roman troops, which included Alan and Hun mercenaries against Radagaisus. The Gothic army was driven into the Fiesola Highlands, where they were trapped. Lacking food they started to starve and desertions became common. Once they were at their weakest point Stilicho moved in and annihilated them. They captured thousands of Gothic warriors who were pressed into service with the Roman army, Radagaisus was captured and executed.
In 406 Britain rebelled and proclaimed Constantine Emperor. He led an army from Britain across the channel to the continent. A general named Sarus was sent against him and was unsuccessful. Alaric was paid 4,000 pounds of gold to march against this pretender from Britain. On the 13th August Stilicho was executed because he tried to leave the west on a visit to the east, leaving Alaric in command of the western military. As a result approximately 30,000 allied barbarian soldiers left Italy and joined Alaric. Then in 408 AD Alaric with his warriors invaded Italy, with Stilicho dead there was no competent general to stand against this invasion by Alaric and his Goths.
They captured Rome and managed to cut the supply lines between Rome and North Africa, which was the major supplier of grain to the Roman city. Alaric demanded gold, silver and any other portable treasure such as spice, which could easily be carried. The senate offered Alaric a deal of 5,000 gold, 30,000 silver and much more, but the deal fell through because Honorouis withheld the Roman position and land rights which Alaric had demanded and wanted so badly. The siege continued through 409AD, the city rebelled and along with the Goths appointed a new Emperor Attaalus, who appointed Alaric Magister Utrusque Militum.
The problem with this new Emperor was he suddenly gained some back bone and displayed a mind of his own, something the Goths hadn’t expected. He refused the Goths passage to North Africa. Alaric became angry and frustrated so disposed of Attalus. The Goths then blockaded Rome stopping vital supplies entering the city. On the 24th August the Salarium Gates to the city were opened allowing the Goths into the city. Once inside they plundered the city of its riches before moving southwards.
They tried to cross the sea to Sicily, but were hampered by bad weather. A storm blew in and wrecked the Gothic fleet. This forced them to return to Italy and head northwards. It was during this time that Alaric succumbed to illness and died. Alaric is buried somewhere under the river Buzita, the exact location remains a mystery. The reason for this is because the Goths used slaves to divert the river so he could be buried, once this was completed the slaves were killed and the river allowed to run its course. All those who could have located the exact spot where Alaric was buried were killed.
Eventually the Visigoths were settled in southern Gaul as foederati of the Romans, the reasons for which are still subjects for debate among scholars. They soon fell out with their hosts and established their own kingdom with its capital at Toulouse. They slowly extended their authority into Hispania, displacing the Vandals and Alans. Their rule in Gaul was cut short in 507 at the Battle of Vouillé, when they were defeated by the Franks under Clovis I. Thereafter the only territory north of the Pyrenees that the Visigoths held was Septimania and their kingdom was limited to Hispania. This came completely under the control of their small governing elite at the expense of the Byzantine province of Spania and the Suebic Kingdom of Galicia.