Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Alaric
Alaric (Teut. prob. = Athalaric, noble ruler), general and king (398) of the Goths, the most civilized and merciful of the barbarian chiefs who ravaged the Roman Empire.
Alaric first appears among the Gothic army who assisted Theodosius in opposing Eugenius, 394. He led the revolt of his nation against Arcadius, ravaged the provinces south of the Danube, and invaded Greece 395. Athens capitulated, and afterwards Corinth, Argos, and Sparta. Under the title of Master-General of Eastern Illyricum, 398, he became the ally of Arcadius and secretly planned the invasion of Italy. In the winter of 402 he crossed the Alps, was defeated by Stilicho at Pollentia on Easter Day 403, and driven from Italy. In 404 he exchanged the prefecture of Eastern for that of Western Illyricum, and the service of Arcadius for that of Honorius, and, after the incursion and annihilation of Radagaisus and his Sclavonian hordes in 405, he was subsidized for his supposed services to the empire by the payment of 4,000 pounds of gold. Stilicho's ruin and death in 408, the subsequent massacre of the Goths settled in Italy, and Honorius's impolitic refusal of Alaric's equitable terms, caused the second invasion of Italy, and the first siege of Rome, which ended in a capitulation. At the second siege in 409, preceded by the capture of Ostia, the city was surrendered unconditionally, and Alaric set up Attalus as emperor, in opposition to Honorius, who remained at Ravenna. At the close of the third siege, in 410 (Aug. 24), the city was in the hands of the Goths for six days, during three of which the sack was continued. Alaric died at Consentia late in 410.
The effect of Alaric's conquests on the cause of Christianity, and on the spiritual position of Rome in Western Christendom, is well traced by Dean Milman (Lat. Christ. i. 110‒140). Alaric and his Goths had embraced Christianity probably from the teaching of Ulfilas, the Arian bishop, who died in 388 (Mosheim, ed. Stubbs, i. 233). This age witnessed the last efforts of Paganism to assert itself as the ancient and national religion, and Rome was its last stronghold. Pagans and Christians had retorted upon each other the charge that the calamities of the empire were due to the desertion of the old or new system of faith respectively, and the truth of falsehood of either was generally staked upon the issue. The almost miraculous discomfiture of the heathen Radagaisus by Stilicho, in spite of his vow to sacrifice the noblest senators of Rome on the altars of the gods which delighted in human blood, was accepted as an ill omen by those at Rome who hoped for a public restoration of Paganism (Gibbon, iv. 47‒49, ed. Smith; Milman, Lat. Christ. i. 122). Rome, impregnable while Stilicho, her Christian defender, lived, could submit only to the approach of Alaric, "a Christian and a soldier, the leader of a disciplined army, who understood the laws of war, and respected the sanctity of treaties." In the first siege of Rome both pagan and Christian historians relate the strange proposal to relieve the city by the magical arts of some Etruscan diviners, who were believed to have power to call down lightning from heaven, and direct it against Alaric's camp. That pope Innocent assented to this public ceremony rests only on the authority of the heathen Zosimus (v. 41). It is questioned whether this idolatrous rite actually took place. Alaric perhaps imagined that he was furthering the Divine purpose in besieging Rome. Sozomen (Hist. Eccl. ix. c. 7) mentions as a current story that a certain monk, on urging the king, then on his march through Italy, to spare the city, received the reply that he was not acting of his own accord, but that some one was persistently forcing him on and urging him to sack Rome.
The shock felt through the world at the news of the capture of Rome in Alaric's third siege, 410, was disproportioned to the real magnitude of the calamity: contrast the exaggerated language of St. Jerome, Ep. ad Principiam, with Orosius, 1. vii. c. 39, and St. Augustine, de Civ. Dei, ii. 2 (a work written between 413 and 426 with the express object of refuting the Pagan arguments from the sack of Rome), and his tract, de Excidio Urbis (Opp. t. vi. 622‒628, ed. Bened.). The book in which Zosimus related the fall of Rome has been lost, so that we have to gather information from Christian sources; but it is plain that the destruction and loss was chiefly on the side of Paganism, and that little escaped which did not shelter itself under the protection of Christianity. "The heathens fled to the churches, the only places of refuge. . . . There alone rapacity and lust and cruelty were arrested and stood abashed" (Milman, p. 133). The property of the churches and the persons of Christian virgins were generally respected. The pagan inhabitants of Rome were scattered over Africa, Egypt, Syria, and the East, and were encountered alike by St. Jerome at Bethlehem and by St. Augustine at Carthage. Innocent I. was absent at Ravenna during the siege of Rome. On his return heathen temples were converted into Christian churches; "with Paganism expired the venerable titles of the religion, the great High Priests and Flamens, the Auspices and Augurs. On the pontifical throne sat the bp. of Rome, who would soon possess the substance of the imperial power" (ib. p. 139). Alaric was also instrumental in driving Paganism from Greece. Zosimus (v. 7) asserts that on his approach to Athens its walls were seen to be guarded by Minerva and Achilles. Gibbon says that "the invasion of the Goths, instead of vindicating the honour, contributed, at least accidentally, to extirpate the last remains of Paganism" (vol. iv. p. 37).
The conquests of Alaric, though achieved at an age when the Church boasted many eminent saints and writers, afford far fewer materials for the martyrologist and hagiologist than those of Attila. Alaric, though an Arian, is nowhere recorded to have persecuted the Catholics whom war had placed in his power. Jornandes and Isidore of Seville, Gothic historians, and Orosius, a Spanish Catholic, are equally silent on this point. The following facts of personal history have been preserved. In the sack of Rome Marcella, an aged matron, was thrown on the ground and cruelly beaten (Hieron. Ep. ad Princip.); a nameless lady, who persistently repelled her capturer, was conducted by him to the sanctuary of the Vatican; and an aged virgin, to whose charge some sacred vessels had been entrusted, through her bold constancy preserved them intact. At the plunder of Nola in Campania, St. Paulinus its bishop is said to have prayed, "Lord, let me not suffer torture either for gold or silver, since Thou knowest where are all my riches" (Fleury, Eccl. Hist. ed. Newman, bk. xxii. c. 21). Proba, widow of the prefect Petronius, retired to Africa with her daughter Laeta and her granddaughter Demetrias (Hieron. Ep. cxxx. t. i. p. 969, ed. Vallars.), and spent her large fortune in relieving the captives and exiles. (See Tillemont, Mém. ecclés. t. xiii. pp. 620‒635.) Valuable contributions to the history of Alaric not already mentioned are Sigonius, Opp. t. i. par. 1, pp. 347 sqq. ed. Argellati; Aschbach, Gesch. der Westgothen.