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Alaric the Goth
By Douglas Boin
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The smoke began to rise above the orange-tiled roofs of the eternal city on August 24th 410ad. The watchmen had not seen the gate being opened; they had not seen Alaric the Goth creep in. But as night turned to day, they saw his works. Rome had been besieged and starved on and off for two years; it was said to be so hungry that mothers fed on their babies rather than vice versa. Now it burned and bled. Ancient basilicas went up in flames. Women were raped in the streets; an elderly one was cudgelled as she begged for mercy.
Amid this panorama of carnage there was one more piece of destruction that is often overlooked: the annihilation of the Gothic reputation. Today, as Douglas Boin of Saint Louis University points out in his superb book, the word “Gothic” has become synonymous with all that is “dark, gloomy and macabre”. History, it is often said, is written by the winners—but that is only if they can write. If they can’t, then history is written by the losers, crossly.
Almost as soon as Alaric, ostensibly the victor, decamped to move across Italy, the pens of Rome’s greatest authors were moving across the page. Goths could write a bit but they couldn’t match this. “My voice sticks in my throat,” lamented St Jerome, “sobs choke my utterance.” The monk Pelagius recorded the universal “terror of death and slaughter”; St Augustine started to churn out “The City of God”. Each affirmed not only the Gothic attack but an iron rule of history: never murder a people more literate than you. Alaric—like Attila, the Vandals and the Vikings—has paid the price.
Unfairly, Mr Boin argues, as he writes the history that the Goths never managed to. No one has undertaken a chronicle from Alaric’s point of view, a lacuna that makes this book worthwhile—and hard to pull off. Sources are scant and, as Mr Boin admits, his narrative is a patchwork: a snippet of archaeology here, a strand of military handbook there, all tied together with excerpts from general histories of the period. There is, in truth, not much Alaric the Goth in “Alaric the Goth”.
Instead, readers get the outline of his life—born in the 370s in the Danube delta, part of what was then called Gothia, a long stint in the Roman army, then disillusionment—and a lot of brilliant detail. This is less a biography than the anatomy of an empire. Mr Boin opens up the Rome of the fourth and fifth centuries and examines it with scientific precision and a wonderful turn of phrase, guiding readers with erudition and verve into battles in which men’s eyes are stabbed by arrows “the way a silver toothpick stabbed an olive”.
He paints a picture of an unbearably divided world. While soldiers campaign, wealthy Romans turn living into “performance art”. In an ancient version of the Instagram dinner, hosts obsessively record the weight of food they serve, as they serve it, so that “guests salivated while their hosts scribbled”. In yacht-club chatter, idle young men talk in learned and aggrandising analogies. Sailing around the bay becomes “going after the Golden Fleece”.
Mr Boin peers closest of all at the indignities of Gothic life. The migration of Goths across Europe is often characterised as a barbarian invasion, but the story told here is of families struggling to survive rather than thugs fighting for the hell of it. Rome itself was overrun with Goths long before Alaric arrived. By the late fourth century 30,000 lived in the capital, often as slaves. Snatched by traders, Gothic children spent their childhoods sweeping the floors of farmhouses. Roman border patrols had orders to separate migrating parents from their sons, whom many Gothic mothers never saw again. Mr Boin offers this detail with a nudge, then moves on. Thankfully, this is not Trump in a toga.
Alaric not only survived this difficult world; he thrived in it. He was, sources say, “more like a Roman” than a Goth. By the end of the fourth century, Alaric had fought long enough and hard enough that he might have expected a reward (respect, stability, citizenship). He didn’t get it. A coveted generalship was summarily terminated. He protested, but was ignored. Finally, humiliated and belittled, on August 24th Alaric the Goth—or rather, Alaric “more like a Roman”—slipped inside the city walls.
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