“A talented immigrant is denied citizenship by an unjust empire … he survived a border policy that separated immigrant children from their families … his dream of achieving the basic dignity of citizenship slipped away during a time of political paralysis.” Douglas Boin is writing ancient history, but he wants his readers to see the contemporary parallels. Boin’s atmospheric account of Alaric, the Gothic leader who led to the 410 CE attack on Rome, traditionally cited as the end date of the western Roman Empire, is a biography only in the loosest sense of the word. Little information survives about Alaric’s life beyond his intermittent connections with Rome as a soldier, imperial official, and outraged assailant. Lacking personal particulars, Boin paints a richly detailed portrait of the world in which Alaric maneuvered, defined by the thrashings of an empire in turmoil.
Alaric was born around 370 in Dacia, an Eastern European region north of the Danube River conquered by Rome in the early second century. After an imperial decree extended citizenship to all free-born people living in a Roman province in 212, it seemed possible the Goths would be comfortably assimilated into Roman society. But violent encounters with tribes on the empire’s fringes led Rome to abandon Dacia in 275, and the Danube became a militarized border lined with Roman forts. In 376, when Alaric was a child, those forts were besieged by desperate Gothic refugees fleeing the invading Huns from central Asia.
Rome felt some responsibility for people it had once ruled, many of whose sons still served it as “loyal confederates”: no longer citizens, but reasonably well-paid soldiers policing the empire’s frontiers. The government allowed the refugees to camp within Rome’s borders, but Gothic boys were separated from their families and relocated to various towns as military cadets to ensure their “faithfulness.” After Roman-Goth tensions flared into war in 378, Boin states, the relocated Gothic boys were executed.
This assertion appears in a single Roman account written two centuries later (Boin offers reasonable arguments for trusting it), but the forced separation of families by itself was enough to make a Gothic boy wary of Romans. Nonetheless, Alaric joined the Roman army in 392. Rome and the Goths had made peace, and he was among the thousands of Goths who hoped soldiering would fulfill its historic role as a means for the foreign-born to advance in Roman society. Rome, Boin comments, “was still an empire of immigrants,” who were at least tolerated for the skills and hard work they devoted to their adopted homeland. But the religious intolerance promoted by emperor Theodosius, who in 380 decreed Christianity the only permissible faith for Roman citizens, proved dangerous to Goths on several fronts. Pagans “felt anger and frustration as their world slipped away”; they could easily be roused to see immigrants as another threat to old Roman ways. The extreme Christians emboldened by Theodosius’s policies viewed the Goths’ more relaxed form of Christianity, which incorporated ancient tribal practices, as evidence of their deceitful nature.
Despite his service to the empire during a major battle in which 10,000 Goth soldiers were sacrificed to achieve victory, Alaric was denied a promotion in 395. This disappointment began a 15-year period of seesawing relations with the imperial government that culminated in the assault on Rome but also included four years as a military official in the Roman prefecture of Illyricum and countless rounds of fruitless negotiations on behalf of himself and the dispossessed Goths, who by the late 390s called Alaric their tribal leader. Over and over, in Boin’s dense but lucid account, a sympathetic government official promises Alaric better treatment, the gains made by Goths provoke a backlash, and Alaric’s contact is assassinated as a Goth-loving traitor. Boin’s point is that Alaric “fought to be a part of Rome”; it was native Romans’ refusal to accommodate Gothic aspirations that led to his 410 attack.
Boin dismisses apocalyptic accounts of those three days by Christians who weren’t there as religious propaganda, noting that Alaric ordered his men to spare Romans who sought refuge in churches and that he overruled subordinates who pressed him to escalate the conflict and “make the Romans’ land the Goths’ empire.” Instead, he led his followers south, planning to settle across the Mediterranean. “He had a border child’s faith in Rome and an undying belief in the decency of the Roman people,” Boin writes in a moving passage. “Roman Africa would be a place for the Goths to regain their composure.” Alaric died waiting for passage and was buried in southern Italy.
It is by now common wisdom among academics that the Germanic peoples whose incursions contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire were seeking to be part of it, not to destroy it. Boin conveys this scholarly insight to general readers in a cogent, readable text that vividly conveys the fear and confusion that surrounded the issue of immigrants’ rights in a period of declining Roman power. He draws the contemporary parallels with a freedom that teeters on the brink of overstatement, but his handling of the relocated Gothic boys’ deaths is characteristic of his bold yet scrupulous reading of ancient sources. And Boin’s final statement strikes a somber note that might well give present-day Americans pause. “The Roman people could have used 410 to demand changes,” he writes. “Instead, Rome fomented its policies of intolerance and settled for the status quo.”
ALARIC THE GOTH: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome
By Douglas Boin
Norton, 272 pp., $26.95
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for the Washington Post.