Soldiers and Sailors - C. F. Horne

Alaric the Bold


Visigoths crossing the Danube

Alaric, the "All-ruler," surnamed the Baltha, or Bold, was born, about 360, on an island in the delta of the Danube. As long as the great Theodosius lived, the Goths continued in his pay; but when he died in 395, and Alaric was elevated on the shield as king of the Visigoths, he determined to lead his nation to independent victory. In 395 and 396 he invaded Greece, and Stilicho, the Vandal general of the Western Emperor, advanced against him. The strategy of Stilicho was masterly, and it would probably have gone hard with Alaric had not Stilicho been suddenly bidden by the Eastern Emperor, Arcadius, to withdraw his western troops. Again, in 396, Stilicho penned Alaric in the Peloponnesus, but for some unknown reason allowed him to escape into Illyricum. The Gothic chief had, however, struck deadly terror into the Eastern Empire; and by way of pacifying him Arcadius made him Master-General of Illyricum.

Alaric had already found the way to Italy when he accompanied Theodosius In his campaign against the usurper Maximus in 394. In 400 he descended into Italy, not with an army only, but with the migration of his entire people. He defeated the Romans under the walls of Aquileia, and in 401 besieged Honorius in Milan. In 402 a vast army under Stilicho met him at Pollentia; and when an old chieftain advised him to retire, Alaric, with fierce indignation, silenced his timid counsellor, and told him that he had been assured by a voice which came from the grave and said to him, "Thou shalt penetrate to the City" (ad Urbem). But the oracle on this occasion had "paltered " with him in a double sense. He penetrated indeed ad Urbem, not however "to the City," but to the little river Urbis  (or Borbo), near Pollenzo. On Good Friday, April 4, 402, the Western army, under a dwarfish Hun chieftain named Saulus, attacked and routed Alaric, recovering the splendid spoils of Greece, freeing his captives, and winning back the purple robes which the Emperor Valens had lost in the battle of Adrianople. In that disastrous defeat even the wife of Alaric, if we may believe the poet Claudian, was taken prisoner.



Alaric retreated through Lombardy, and the feeble Emperor Honorius—"a crowned nothingness"—celebrated at Rome, in 404, that triumph which was signalized by the last display of the brutal gladiatorial games. No sooner had the first blood been shed than the Eastern monk Telemachus sprang down into the arena to part the combatants. His life paid the price of his glorious temerity. He was hewn and stoned to death. But that death was not in vain. The horrid massacres, at which not only men but women gazed in demoniac pleasure and excitement, had been condemned centuries before by the genius of Christianity. It was monstrous that an emperor calling himself a Christian should preside at such a spectacle. But the martyrdom of Telemachus at last touched the callous and torpid consciences of nominal Christians. Thenceforth the games of the amphitheatre were abolished. But it was too late for repentance. Alike "the incomparable wickedness and the incomparable splendor" of the Imperial City were doomed to destruction. Even the blood of a Christian martyr voluntarily shed would not atone for the blood of hundreds of brave barbarians who, in that huge Flavian amphitheatre, had been

"Butchered to make a Roman holiday."

The day was near at hand when the Goths would arise and glut their ire.

Alaric, though he had retreated, was still in a position to dictate terms to Stilicho. He fixed his camp at Æmona, and was promised large pay and the government of a Western province under nominal allegiance to the Western Emperor. But the pledges made to him were broken, and their fulfilment delayed. In 408 the promise of the oracle was fulfilled, for he led his troops under the walls of Rome. The feeble and timid Honorius had retired to Ravenna, where he was safe behind the marshes, the pine-woods, and the stone walls against which Alaric said that he did not fight. In 408 the wretched court filled to the full the brimming cup of its iniquities—first by a massacre of barbarian auxiliaries at Pavia, and then by the foul, ungrateful murder of Stilicho himself, at the command of Honorius. No army barred the path of Alaric, but an Italian hermit denounced on him the wrath of heaven. This might have awoke the superstitious terrors of the Gothic soldiers if Alaric had not assured them, with confidence, that he was obeying a divine and irresistible command. The Goths encamped under the walls which for six hundred and nineteen years had never been threatened by a foreign enemy. The wealthy, effeminate, corrupted nobles, and people of the Eternal City thought to terrify Alaric back by boasts of their numbers. His scornful answer simply was, "The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed." He demanded all their gold, silver, movables, and barbarian slaves. "What then, O King, will you leave us?" He grimly said, "Your lives." He was content, however, this time to accept a ransom, of which the most curious element was three thousand pounds of pepper.

The folly, pride, and braggadocio of Honorius, or rather of his miserable court, brought Alaric a second time to Rome in 409. The city capitulated, and he raised Attalus to the purple as a rival to Honorius. But Attalus proved utterly incompetent, and the next year Alaric publicly and insultingly degraded him to a private position. In 410 a fresh insult and wrong inflicted on the Goths by Honorius brought Alaric once more to Rome. He burst in by the Salarian gate, and sacked the city, which was only saved from irretrievable destruction by the respect of the Goths for the churches, which they regarded as inviolable asylums. The pillage and conflagration of Rome, and the resultant ruin and misery, came on the world like a shock of earthquake; but the Pagans saw that the catastrophe would have been yet more awful if the conquerors had not been Christians as well as the conquered.

It seemed as if even the Imperial City could not fall without some circumstance of irony and insult. Paganism may be said to have perished in two bursts of laughter : one when in Alexandria the Christian mob burst into merriment to see the rats scurry out of the rotten head of the shattered statue of Serapis; and again when Theodosius and his soldiers laughed at the golden thunderbolts torn from the uplifted arms of the menacing statue of Jupiter. And Honorius managed to invest even the fall of Rome with ludicrous associations. He was a great fancier of fowls, and had a particularly large hen, which, out of compliment, he called Roma. When the agitated eunuch entered to tell him that "Rome had perished," "What!" cried the Emperor, in a voice of deep concern, "why, she was feeding out of my hand only an hour ago!" "It is the city of Rome that has fallen, sire!" "Oh, my friend," said the Emperor, with a sigh of relief, "but I thought you meant that my hen 'Roma' had died."

Saint and Gladiator


Laden with spoils of priceless value, the creaking wagons of the Gauls went southward. Alaric meant to lead them to the conquest first of Sicily, then of Africa. But death overtook him amid the schemes of his ambition. He died after a short illness, and was buried in the bed of the river which washes the walls of Cosentia. The captives who reared the tomb were massacred, that none might know where the hero lay. The Visigothic kingdom of Spain, founded by the warrior tribe which he first led into the West, is one of the most permanent results of his invasion.