The History of the Goths: From Alaric to Wallia


This post is the last entry into the history of the Goths, which started with a description of their potential origin and the banality and irrelevance of the question. It is a continues where the previous post (covering the period of the history of the Goths from the reign of Trajan in the early 100sCE until the death of Theodosius in 395CE) left off.

This post is divided into 5 parts

  1. The first part covers the aftermath of the death of Theodosius and describes the rise of Alaric amid the struggles for power by pro- and anti-Gothic factions in the East, the struggle between East and West reflecting the power struggles of Stilicho with Rufinus and Eutropius, between 395 and 401.
  2. The second section briefly describes the spillover of Alaric’s efforts to the West between 401 and 405.
  3. The third section discusses the convergence of crises in the West, including the battles against Radagaisus, the crossing of the Rhine at the end of 406, the ensuing usurpation of Constantine III, the invitation of Alaric onto the West and the death of Stilicho.
  4. The fourth section then describes the aftermath of all these events from the massacres of the Goths by Olympius, the swelling of Alaric’s followers to a Visigothic super-group, the negotiations of 408-410 and culminating in the 410 sack of Rome.
  5. The fifth section then describes the movements of the Goths in the 13 years between 410 and 423, the rise of Constantius III, their role in the stabilisation of the West, the passing of Alaric, his replacement by Athaulf, then Sigeric and onwards to Walia and the settlement of the Goths in Gallic province of Narbonensis.

Once again, the most pervasive observation I make is the chaotic environment of Gothic and Roman fragmentation throughout the period considered. Alaric probably started out as the leader of a small regiment of Goths after the Battle of the Frigidus. Stilicho struggled with Rufinus and Eutropius. Gainas struggled with the praetorian prefects of the East. Stilicho and Alaric fought wars against each other but Stilicho probably ended up dying at the hands of Olympius for his alliance with Alaric. Constantine III rebels against Honorius. Segeric betrays Athaulf. Wallia kills Sigeric. The environment is completely chaotic. The only semblance of stability coincides with Constantius III’s hegemony betwee 310CE and 321CE. Unfortunately for the Romans, this period was very short-lived.

Stilicho and Alaric, Tribigild, Gainas and Fravita in the East: 395-401

The year of 395 witnesses the rise of Alaric (395-410), first leader of the Balti Dynasty, who had served under Gainas, according to Wolfram. It is difficult to establish Alaric’s background as all biographies are coloured by the aura of his later achievements in oreder to make his ancestors match his success. Some guesses make him the son or grand-son ofRothesteus a vassal of Athanaric. While he appears already during the 394 Battle of the Frigidus (Western Slovenia/Northeastern Italy), and possibly in that attack on Theodosius in 389, 395CE is important because it is the year of the death of Theodosius. When I did the reading, it appeared to me that there were 2 alternative narratives for the rise of Alaric at this moment in time:

  • The first is a narrative of group continuity and cohesiveness, as I understand it is espoused by Peter Heather (2005:211-215, 224-227). He seems to argue that the death of Theodosius creates enough uncertainty about succession to give the Goths the opportunity to renege on the treaty of 382, and elect Alaric as their sole leader (they had been forbidden from chosing a single leader by the treaty of 382). Alaric’s Goths could be traced back to the Thervingi and Greutungi after the peace of 382. Their main reason for rebellion was their collective desire to renegotiate the terms of their treaty and seek independence from Roman rule. They probably wanted to free themselves of the burden of military service to Rome. This can be understood in light of the burden placed upon them during battles, namely during the Battle of the Frigidus, when Theodosius ensured that they, as foederati rather than his regular armies, bore the brunt of human cost of the battle. This is probably a similar incentive to the one that drove Athanaric in 369 to seek to review the terms of the 332 treaty with Constantine. Later Peter Heather (2005:224-227) asserts that Alaric and his Goths’ main objective had always been to establish an independent land for his people


  • The second is a narrative of personal interest and charismatic leadershiphypothesis is more explicitly proposed by Kulikowski (2007:163) who argues thatAlaric’s initial claims were of a self-interested nature. Citing Claudian [Kulikowski (2007:161)], he argues that Alaric was among the group of Goths that assaulted and almost killed Theodosius upon to the East in 391, and was subsequently pacified by the intervention of Stilicho and incorporated into the Roman troops on time for the Battle of the Frigidus. Given that his troops endured the brunt of the fighting during that battle, he was apparently displeased when he was not given a Roman command. When he was dismissed following the death of Theodosius and allowed to return to the Balkans, he took the opportunity offered by his isolation to rebel and demand a command from Constantinople, which Rufinus, the protector of Arcadius seems to have refused.

A middle ground, which would probably be agreed by both authors strikes me as being more realistic. Due to my experience of “the people’s” lack of agency, I am keen to reject the quasi-populist support implicit in Peter Heather (2005:212-213) statement that following the battle of the Frigidus,

“when emperor Theodosius died in early 395, therefore, the Goths were ripe for revolt, ready to rewrite the terms of the agreement of 382 to secure a greater degree of security. And in raising the banner of rebellion they appointed for themselves an overall leader, for the first time since the suppression of Fritigern and Alatheus and Saphrax – in direct contravention to the treaty. Their choice fell upon Alaric, who had made a name for himself in an earlier, smaller revolt after the Maximus campaign.” (emphasis added)

This is consistent with the description that the Goths raised Alaric “on a shield” and proclaimed him king; according to Jordanes, a 6th-century Roman bureaucrat of Gothic origin, both the new king and his people decided “rather to seek new kingdoms by their own work, than to slumber in peaceful subjection to the rule of others.”

At the same time, my understanding of collective human action is more supportive of Kulikowski (2007:165)’s argument that Alaric would have probably begun with the small force under his command and then went from there. I struggle with Peter Heather (2005:213)’s suggestion that Alaric’s force was “much larger” than the one under Fritigern’s command after the Battle of Adrianople in 378CE because it included both the Thervingi and Greutungi survivors of the Danube crossing of 376. My issue is not with the quantities which clearly grew fast enough to serve him in the battles he was to spend the next 10 years fighting. My issue is with the sense of continuity and coordinated unity that seems to underline that statement, giving the impression of a line of succession which I doubt existed in the minds of contemporary actors.

Although it is also easy to imagine and understand that Alaric wanted military honours and power for purely personal ambition and greed he may have been a more nuanced character. The history of the movements of the disaffected and exploited Goths and the demands that Alaric makes in 410 do paint Alaric in a better colour. He had to juggle the needs of his people and the factions leading Rome, which alternated between anti-barbarian and relatively welcoming to the barbarians, while using the Goths as pawns in the power struggles between the Eastern and Western Courts’ grandees.

Regardless of his motivations, Alaric was discontent, decided to rebel and devastate the Balkan countryside admittedly somewhere on his way from the Frigidus, in the neighbourhood of Aquileia, to Constantinople (perhaps, around Sirmium or Serdica). As a result, for the next 10 years, he faced Stilicho, the regent of the (Western Emperor Honorius) on 5 different occasions where he was either defeated or simply managed a stalemate.

The first encounter occurred in Thrace (perhaps around Phillipopolis) in 395 immediately after the beginning of the revolt. The most interesting thing at this stage is not so much the conflict between Stilicho  and Alaric , but the fact that Stilicho  is forced to return the armies of the East that Theodosius had brought with him during the campaign againstEugenius. This apparently altruistic show of solidarity to a patently antagonistic Eastern court has three potentially complementary and very plausible explanations:

  1. First, it made sense to return the Eastern field army for short term reasons . The East, or Pars Oriens as the Romans knew it, was the richest half of the Empire. It was where Egypt lay and where trade had always been more developed. It was the arrival point of the silk and spice road into the Empire. It was also the traditional battle field between Rome and its regional adversary, Persia.
  2. Second, it made sense to return the Eastern field army for short term reasons. If indeedAlaric had begun revolting before Stilicho arrived in the Balkans, the absence of an eastern field army would have been apparent in Rufinus’ (the Praetorian Prefect that dominated Eastern Emperor Arcadius, the oldest son of the late Theodosius) inability to put an end to the rebellion. However, Eutropius willingness to give a military command to Alaric in 397 [Peter Heather (2005:214)] leaves me with the impression that controlling him was less important than to man the Persian frontier (limes). Indeed, shortly thereafter the army was sent to the eastern frontier to deal with Hunnic incursions [Peter Heather (2005:387)].
  3. Kulikowski (2007:166) argues in favour of a third explanation. On the one hand the eastern field army may simply have been too difficult for Stilicho manage on his own. Whether this was because it was too undisciplined or because the task was simply too logistically complicated is unknown. It strikes me as unlikely though. If there was a problem, it would have been fiscal. Stilicho would have only had the resources of the West to pay an army at least twice the size of the usual amount. The vast resources extracted from Egypt were under the control of the Eastern court. Stilicho was left with the extra cost and no added revenue to support it. Kulikowski (2007:166) adds a further incentive for this otherwise stately renunciation of power. The army was delivered through and to Gainas, who was a Goth, but more importantly was also a political adversary of Rufinus . Indeed, shortly after Stilicho returned the Eastern Field army Rufinus met his end. While he may not have been immediately responsible, John Matthews (p.271)  argues that Stilicho contented himself by colluding in the assassination, on 27 November 395, of Fl. Rufinus

The next encounter between Stilicho and Alaric took place in the Diocese of Macedonia in 397 where Stilicho trapped Alaric’s forces in the mountains by the Pholoe. This was in the sequence of a year or so of campaigning by Alaric in the region that had seen him pillage Attica and the Peloponnese during 396 and 397.


Apparently, Stilicho had Alaric at his mercy, but ended up leaving him be, probably because he needed to attend to Gildo’s rebellion in North-Africa. At this stage, Eutropiusmakes Alaric magister militum per Illyricum according to John Matthews (p.272), who further suggests they may have been able to receive tax or tribute revenues, an idea that I will return to shortly. This is why Peter Heather (2005:220) supposes that the Dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia were the Gothic base of operations between 397 and 405, i.e. the place they returned to when the campaigns of 401 and 403 failed.

For the next couple of years, Gothic trouble seems to have remained confined to the East. Until 401, Alaric remains in the shadows of other power brokers. In my opinion, considering this period in the context of pro- and anti- Gothic factions and their struggle for power in Constantinople is plausible and offers some interpretatitve advantages. Although the alliances were not monolithic, there seems to have been certain tendencies that prevailed vis-à-vis the Goths. The main power brokers were either Goths or Romans, with the first apparently dominating the military establishment, while the latter managed the civil service that paid/fed them. Clearly the East was ripe for instability.

The main military leader was Gainas, but there were other contenders including Alaric,Tribigild and Fravitta. Gainas may have been magister militum for Thrace or for Illyricum, which is difficult to assert because so was Alaric. Of the two, Gainas held the higher rank and was definitely closer to the corridors of power in Constantinople. The main civilian administrators after Rufinus and Eutropius were Caesarius, Eutychianus andAurelianus (possibly all of them sons of Taurus). As Praetorian Prefects of the East, they would have (formally) been second only to the Emperor and responsible for paying/feeding the Goths, among other responsibilities.  This is where their biases towardsAlaricGainas and Tribigild may have come into play. For clarity, let’s consider the paths of each camp separately.

Caesarius‘ and Eutychianus‘ tenures seems to coincide with the periods of influence of Rufinus and EutropiusCaesarius held that office between 395 and 397. Eutychianus succeeded Caesarius and held the position from 397 to July 399. Aurelianus then takes over between July and August and October 399 only to be replaced by Eutychianus again between December 399 to July 400. At this time, some stability seems to return to the Eastern establishment as Caesarius returns to hold the office until 403. At this stage, Eutychianus holds the office for the third time between 404 and 405.

As Kulikowski (2007:168-169) points out, possibly inspired by Alaric, Tribigild theGreutung decides to rebel in Asia Minor in the second quarter (“the spring”) of 399. After Leo’s failure to contain Tribigild, Gainas is sent to end this rebellion but fails and opens negotiations with him. Somewhere along the way, it seems that Gainas began “bargaining on his own behalf”. He demanded that Arcadius get rid of Eutropius. However, with the downfall of Eutropius, Eutychianus  (who had held the Praetorian Prefects of the Eastbetween 397 and 399) is replaced by Aurelianus in August, the patron of Synesius of Cyrene,. However, Aurelianus  wasn so inconvenient to Gainas that it caused him to march on Chalcedon before the end of the year. At this stage he demanded 3 things :

  • That Aurelianus be relieved of his duties.
  • That Arcadius appoint him as Consul, a largely symbolic honour that had changed beyond recognition by the late empire.
  • That Arcadius appoint him as magister militum as had been done to Alaric.

Of these he convinced Arcadius to give him the first two and Aurelianus’ praetorian prefecture ended in December 399, 3 months after it started . Gainas moves into Constantinople but is surrounded by enemies. Stirred by the Empress Aelia Eudoxia and by Caesarius, the people of Constantinople attack Gainas’ soldiers forcing them to flee towards the Black Sea. Behind the palace intrigue however, the reality seems to have been fairly grim. As they fled Constantinople, some of the families of the Goths in Roman service were left behind and massacred by the citizens of the city according to Peter Heather (2005:215).Meanwhile, Fravitta, an island of paganism among aggressive Christians, is charged with giving them chase but never captures Gainas. Gainas is ultimately killed by Uldin the Hun who sends Arcadius the Goth’s decapitated head as a diplomatic gift.

Clearly, the Goths supported the pro-gothic faction in the East. But what Romans supported the pro-Gothic faction? Give that we know that

We can say with some confidence that Caesarius, and Aurelianus were anti-Gothic. This pro-Goth versus anti-Goth approach breaks down when we consider the relationships between Gainas and Eutropius or between Gainas and Tribigild, Gainas and Alaric (with whom he may have competed for Illyricum) or Gainas and Fravitta. The fact that Gainas is the common denominator highlights his influence and the fact that he was at the centre of all conflict in this period, with one foot in Gothic affairs and another in Roman court intrigue.

As the Goths enter the 5th century, it’s worth highlight another 3 interesting facts about the state of affairs so far:

  1. Alaric and the Goths have been a purely eastern problem so far. The west had endured two rebellions, but both were led by men of unquestionable Roman pedigree, even if Arbogast the Frank, seems to have been the military mastermind behind Eugenius’ campaign [Kulikowski (2007:163)].
  2. While these power struggles were going on in Constantinople, the Praefecti Augustalii(governor of the diocese of Egypt) does not seem to have intervened by refusing to send material resources to one praetorian prefect or another. Unfortunately, this inference is based on lack the of evidence to support a revolt, rather than evidence of continued and neutral loyalty regardless of whatever faction held sway in Constantinople. However, if such was the case, this would have showed more restraint than what happened in the West 30 years later when Aetius and Count Boniface fought for power.
  3. There seems to have been no erosion of troops along the Persian borders. Indeed, it appears that Roman political stability may have actually be superseded by defence considerations. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that Roman military leaders found it better to give something to Gainas so long as the Persian border was defended and that the comings and goings of this army may have affected the leverage of Gainas himself.


Stilicho and Alaric’s first campaigns in Italy: 401-403

Before considering what we know about Alaric’s actions between 401 and 403, it may be interesting to consider what we don’t know about his actions between 397 and 401, or even how his raids in 395 and 397 fit into the court intrigues that were just discussed in the section above. Consider first John Matthews (1975:272)’s suggestion that Eutropius madeAlaric Magister Militum per Illyricum. Other sources prefer to see him in the role of a Dux instead. Regardless of the rank, I think that this would have achieved 4 different things:

  1. It created a counterweight to Gainas.
  2. It created a counterweight to Stilicho.
  3. It would have finally given Alaric the title he wanted.
  4. It gave Alaric’s Goths a source of revenues, either through tax or tribute.

As we’ve seen, at this stage the superiority of Gainas is obvious. Alaric is a secondary character at best as far as the power struggles of the East are concerned. He seems petulant and easily defeated in his 395 rebellion. But what do the next two years of rampaging through the East mean?

  • The fact that he continued to make trouble in 396 and 397 and that Stilicho had to come to the East to resolve the issue may suggest that he was so irrelevant as to not even warrant the attention of the East. In this case it is interesting to note that Eutropius’ murder suggests that Alaric only fell into Gainas’s radar upon his appointment as Magister Militum per Illyricum, an oversight that was promptly corrected. Defeated by Stilicho and put in his place by Gainas, some of Alaric’s following may have at least temporarily abandoned him in favour of Gainas.
  • Alternatively, Alaric’s attacks of 395-396 may mean that as his patron, Gainas gave him a force to keep Macedonia under control while he consolidated his power in Thrace. Accepting this hierarchy of relations between Alaric and Gainas, then Gainas may have felt betrayed by Alaric’s deal with Eutropius in 397. The fact that Eutropius died butAlaric didn’t may be taken to indicate that the hierarchy did not create a (complete) dependence of Alaric on the munificence of Gainas. Nevertheless, the result would have been the same as before. It would have been clear to his followers who the real head of the Goths was, so they would have converged to him.

Any one of these logics explains why a dishonoured and disposed of Alaric  spends the remaining 4 years doing nothing about it. He couldn’t. Gainas could have threatened him and some of his men may even have abandoned him for the more successful Gainas. Indeed, his return to the scene only happens in 401, the likely year of Gainas death at the hands of Uldin the Hun, and following his defeat at the hands of Fravitta in 400. And then something changes. At around the same time, the praetorian prefecture of the pro-gothicEutychianus, who had ruled since 397, ends with his replacement by Caesarius after July 12th 400. In one way or another, between 397 and late 400, Alaric  was weak but accommodated by the Eastern central power. When he became strong and was antagonised, he decided to go West.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that Alaric and his men enter Italy in 401 when they are defeated by Stilicho at the Battle of Polentia and one more time in 403 when they are defeated in Verona. In 403, after another two failures, Alaric returns to the East from whence he came, where there was no influential Goth walking the streets of Constantinople. Gainas had been kicked out and was chased by Fravitta in 401. Fravitta, whose paganism probably isolated him, was eventually also eliminated. So there was no perceivable military competition. However, after a 4 year stint in power, Caesarius’s animosity once more gave way to a more sympathetic leadership of the praetorian prefecture by Eutychianus between 403 and 405. As discussed in the previous section this may not have been the case or at least not completely. The argument is consistent with Eutychianus’ career, so that his support of Alaric may have dated back to his time as Praetorian Prefect of Illyricum between 396 and 397. Eutropius and Eutychianus are very likely to have helped a lot too, willingly or not.


These failed campaigns in the west may have been explained as

  • a depletion of the Eastern resources,
  • a return of the Eastern field army from fighting against the Huns
  • naturally-occurring cycles of pro- and anti-Gothic leaderships in the East, or
  • as Kulikowski (2007:165-171) argues a plot by the East to undermine Stilicho in the West

However his lack of success and, as we saw earlier, the praetorian prefecture ofEutychianus respectively seem to force and allow him to return to Illyricum in the Balkans where he stays put. He is stuck between the two halves of the empire, squeezed and without any particular direction until Stilicho calls on him in late 405/early 406.

The Fall of Stilicho: Radagaisus, the Crossing of the Rhine, Contantine III and Alaric: 405-408

The 3 years between 405 and 408 are extremely chaotic for the West. In 405 another pagan Visigoth, Radagaisus, enters Italy through Noricum with a force of 20,000 warriors from the Carpathian foothills. After some battles, Stilicho gathers a force of 30 numerarii(15,000 soldiers) probably drawing on the limitanei on the Rhine frontier [Peter Heather (2005:198,205)], which he uses to relieve the Siege of Florence and defeat Radagaisus. This is also the first time we hear of Sarus who was commanding a force of Gothic foederates under Stilicho. Of the survivors of Radagaisus’ group, some 12,000 are absorbed by Stilicho’s army, while so many others are sold into slavery that the Slave market is said to have collapse. According to Peter Heather (2005:194) Radagaisus is executed on 23 August 406, four months before the Crossing of the Rhine.


Four months after Stilicho’s victory over Radagaisus, the Vandals, Alans and Suebi (and possibly the Burgundians) manage to Cross the Rhine through Moguntiacum (Mainz) on New Year’s eve 406CE. They then spend the next year of 407CE freely roaming and pillaging through Gaul. The image below is an approximate description of the movements of the Vandals, Alans and Suebi between 407 and 409, based on Peter Heather (2005:207).


Then, the last of a sequence of usurpers from Britain, Constantine III, crosses the English Channel, lands at Bononia (aka Gesoriacum). From there he sent a vanguard force to establish control of Gaul led by his two magister militi, Iustinianus and the FrankNebiogastes. However, this force came under siege in Valence by the forces of Honorius’ General Sarus, a protege of Stilicho’s and the last remaining Visigothic opponent of Alaric and Athaulf’s. After his two generals were defeated by Sarus, a second attack by Edobichus and Gerontius was successful and Sarus was forced to flee to Italy through the Alps, where he probably joined Stilicho. Thus, by May 408, we know that Constantine III had established himself in Arles where he appointed Apollinaris (the grand-father of Sidonius Apollinaris) as his praetorian prefect for Gaul, after supposedly securing the Rhine frontier.


Sometime between May and August 408, he decided to pre-empt an attack from his south-western flank where four Theodosian cousins of Honorius, Theodosiolus, Lagodius, Didimus and Verenianus were challenging his authority. He sent his main generalGerontius, Apollinaris and his son Constans II, (whom he had elevated to the rank of junior Cesar) to deal with this challenge. Capturing 2 of the 4 contestants Constans II leftGerontius in charge at Zaragoza and returned to Constantine III’s capital, Arles, where the two captured challengers were put to death.


As if that wasn’t enough, Alaric then joins the party. According to Kulikowski (2007:172)Alaric arrives to Noricum in 408. His logic is that

“Illyricum and Greece had been plundered repeatedly since the early 390s and it is hard to see how they could have yielded revenues on a large enough scale to replace the spoils that Stilicho captured at Pollentia. Having already been resident in the eastern empire for so long, Alaric seems to have decided its potential as a target was limited. The West offered richer pickings. Thus in 407, he marched on Italy again, taking up position in Noricum – modern Austria.”

In the beginning of the next year, during Spring of 408, Alaric demanded a payment of 4,000 pounds of gold, probably tribute for not making life more difficult for the court of Honorius or his price for not joining Constantine III. At this stage, if the analysis above is correct, they were by Noricum, waiting to make trouble either for Constantine and the barbarians who Crossed the Rhine or to Honorius’ Court.

Whatever the reason behind the demand of payment, to pay for it, the impoverished Roman treasury had to levy the revenues from the rich members of the Senate, which virulently opposed it, in a session of the Senate that took place in the early months of 408 and was attended by Stilicho and Honorius themselves [John Matthews (p.278) ].The statement by Senator Lampadius that the payment was a humiliating sign of servitude,  “non est ista pax sed pactio servitutis“, reinforces the notion that the payment was the cost of surviving, not a legitimate payment for services provided. That Lampadius was himself an original supporter of Stilicho indicates the vehemence of the resistance against this policy.

I agree with Kulikowski (2007:172) that Stilicho’s advocacy in favour of this payment was the beginning of his downfall because of how it antagonised the powerful but un-militarised senatorial elites, clear tactical sense though it may have made . This suspicion was further enhanced by the untimely death on May 1st 408 of Arcadius in the East and Stilicho’s decision to keep the Emperor in Rome and send from Ticinum troops to join Alaric in Noricum where the combined forces would attack Constantine, while Stilicho himself would go to the East to oversee the succession. This never took place and eventually, Olympius managed a coup d’etat at Ticinum on 13 August 408 [Peter Heather (p.222) ] that killed the officers that were supposed to join Alaric in the attack onConstantine III and eventually led to the death of Stilicho and his family while also destroying the entire policy of Gothic appeasement.

Assuming that the “early months of 408” refers to sometime in the first half of the year, which is not a stretch and that Spring begins in the March Equinox on the northern hemisphere, then there’s an interesting and fast-paced sequence of events. Alaric must have demanded the money and the Senate held its session sometime by end of April, because by the time Arcadius died, the Senate had already met to discuss the “servile” levy.

By 408, Alaric found himself in the West, with a broken promise for land, a quickly decreasing pot of gold, all the while the Western establishment began to collapse before his very eyes. Faced with 3 different and simultaneous forces, the new regime that replaced Stilicho’s took a series of reactionary and counterproductive decisions, of which the Goths were prominent victims. In a sense, the Goths were in the “wilderness” and the Romans went wild.

On 13 August 408, however, Constantine III was struck by luck, when Olympius managed a coup d’etat at Ticinum on 13 August 408 [Peter Heather (p.222) ]. The result was the depletion of the forces in Italy after Sarus desertion and the Visigothic pogrom, as we saw before, and a loss of leadership, the aftermath of which saw Honorius under attack by Alaric’s Visigothic supergroup. At some point beween September and December 408 the situation would have gotten desperate enough for the court of Honorius at Ravenna, that he recognised Constantine III as co-emperor, sending him the imperial regalia so that the two emperors celebrated a joint consulship in 409.


Competing Narratives for the Motives that Brought Alaric back to the West in 408

It was fascinating for me to discover that the causes of Alaric’s return to Italy in 408 are quite controversial. The sequence of events discussed in the previous section is somewhat consistent with Kulikowski and is further informed by my own conclusions about the dynamics between Alaric and the Eastern elites. Both Heather and Matthews offer alternatives that are much more interesting than that other narrative, but also more difficult to believe, in my humble opinion. In this disagreement as in others one sense a sympathy on the part of Heather and Matthews towards Alaric as a good leader that has its reverse in Kulikowski’s more cynic take on the character. Clearly, I’m on the side of the cynics. Nevertheless, the arguments are worth presenting, if for no other reason that I was really only able to dismiss them after looking at a map.

Although both disagree with Kulikowski and seem to argue that Alaric and Stilicho were moving to Constantinople, even Matthews and Heather seem to disagree on some details. According to Peter Heather (2005:219) sometime shortly after the defeat of Radagaisus, Stilicho may have become aware of the fact that the removal of the limitanei troops from the Rhine frontier caused problems to start brewing. The Roman Empire had a decent military intelligence service (agentes in rebus) and a good postal service (cursus publicus), which would have allowed his lieutenants on the frontier to warn him in advance. In order to solve his problem and potentially give Alaric some stability, Peter Heather (p.219-220) suggests that Stilicho devised a very complex plan. Before we even turn to this plan, there are some administrative technicalities about Illyricum that have to be presented because they are both semantically confusing and crucial to the alternative theory of what brought Alaric to the West in 406-408.

Indeed, this entire discussion is obfuscated by the very complicated administrative history of the Praetorian Prefecture of Illyricum, which parallel the complicated evolution of the meaning of the territorial units successively called Moesia and Dacia discussed earlier. The praefecture’s first iteration was between 347 and 361. At the time it grouped the 3 dioceses of Dacia, Macedonia and Pannonia. Between 361 and 375, the Diocese of Illyricum was incorporated into the Western empire of Gratian as an addition to the Praetorian Prefecture of Italy, while Dacia and Macedonia were ruled by Theodosius in the East. When Gratian died in 384 Theodosius incorporated all three again into a unitedPraetorian Prefecture of Illyricum. However, upon Theodosius’ death in 395 the division was re-instituted once again, so that the Diocese of Illyricum was reincorporated into Western empire of Honorius as an addition to the Praetorian Prefecture of Italy, whileDacia and Macedonia were ruled by Arcadius in the East as the only two constituent parts of the confusingly named Praetorian Prefecture of Illyricum. This is confusing enough as it is, but on top of it, historians tend to speak in very unclear terms (or perhaps it is clear to them and I am the one who is too much of an amateur).  As a result, they seem to use Pannonia and Illyricum interchangeably, without specifying whether they are referring to the praetorian prefecture, the Diocese or one of the 2 Panonnian provinces. So, it’s all a bit confusing…

Nevertheless, and equipped with this knowledge, we can then return to Matthews and Heather’s account of the scheming between Stilicho and Alaric. The reason for that long historical and semantic introduction to Illyricum/Pannonia is motivated by the fact that the entire plan revolved around the West reacquiring the Praetorian Prefecture of Illyricum, reattaching the Diocese of Illyricum to the Dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia. These two Dioceses mattered, particularly Dacia, because it is believed that this is whereAlaric and his Goths had established themselves at least since 397.

The issue of dating the origin of this scheme is also slightly contentious. John Matthews(1975:274) , for example, dates this plan to the appointment of Jovius to head of the Praetorian Prefecture of Illyricum in 405,

“with the intention that he should collaborate with Alaric in an attempt to seize control of the provinces of Eastern [Praetorian Prefecture of] Illyricum for the western government – which required ever more urgently new sources of revenue and recruits.” (see map to get a sense of where these dioceses are). ]

Following a predictable rebuttal from Constantinople, a joint show of force with Alaric’s Goths was planned. Regardless of when it was planned or why, the show of force was interrupted twice and consequently never materialised. According to John Matthews (p.275), the first interruption came in 405 with Radagaisus’s invasion. But if Heather’s timeline is to be preferred, he would have still been delayed in his plans, even if they had been drafted later. This is due to two closely related developments during 406 and 407.

Between the appointment of Jovinus in 405 and 408, Alaric had moved his troops. How, is a bit difficult to understand because we don’t know where he started from exactly. John Matthews (p.275) argues that they moved

“out of Epirus [I’ve assumed Dyrrhachium], passing Venetia, and pitching his campt near the city of Emona. He was keeping a rendezvous, to combine with Stilicho for a march into Pannonia; but nothing happened, and so, moving across into the province of Noricum, he sent a demand to Stilicho for payment for his march into Italy”

Peter Heather (p.220) offers an alternative narrative of events:

“As part of Stilicho’s deal with Alaric, it was agreed that, for the assault on the eastern Empire, the Goths would be reinforced by a substantial contingent from the Roman army of Italy. (…) To this end, Alaric moved his forces into Epirus, within what was still the formally west Roman territory of west Illyricum, and waited for Stilicho’s troops to arrive from across the Adriatic. (…) The assault was presumably planned for the following summer.”

This is consistent with Peter Heather (p.219) view that Stilicho was planning an attack on the Eastern half of the Empire. Both of these developments opened his political flank to the petty whims of the senate and plotting by Olympius in the aftermath of the events of 407.

I have four different issues with these theories.

  • First I think that there is an ease of communication that is assumed here that may not have been quite as easy for Stilicho to have gotten away with.
  • Second, I don’t quite understand how Stilicho could appoint Jovius as praetorian Prefect of Illyricum, given that that administrative region belonged to the East and was effectively beyond Stilicho’s reach. Was this the opening salvo in some sort of territorial administration quarrel?
  • Thirdly, the suggestion that any type of Gothic group in Epirus in 406 seems suggest that their dominance of Illyricum stretched to the west coast of present day Greece.
  • Logistically the romans could navigate by sea, but the Goths could not. So if Stilicho would have gone to meet Alaric, he would have possibly gone by sea, but Alaric would have always met him marching by land.

Focusing on the last two points, as the first two are fairly self-explanatory. The first problem I had was to visualise all these plans. To that effect, the image below illustrates the two plans described by the two authors.


Ultimately, I don’t think Matthews or Heather are correct. As the description in the previous section should have made clear, I think that the meeting of Alaric and Stilicho in Aquileia/Emona only makes sense in the context of a join campaign against Constantine III in Gaul. Stilicho never went to Epirus, so Heather’s plan because it never materialised, remains pure theory, while the plan described Matthews makes no sesne. Why would Alaric have moved northwest only to move back southeast again?

My understanding of the arguments of Heather and Matthews (which could be completely wrong) is that they both fit much more with the narrative advanced by Olympius and his partisans to justify the coup d’etat at Tycinum in 408CE than with what would have otherwise made sense. This is not to say that Stilicho had no incentive to make a show of force against Constantinople. Even taking into account his willingness to give up the part of the army of the east earlier on, it is clear that the relations between the leaders of the courts at Ravenna and Constantinople were far from the best. My argument is not based on the notion that Stilicho did not have an incentive to attack Constantinople ever, but rather that he had more pressing problems in the west in 408CE. Perhaps after defeating Constantine III in Gaul and the Barbarians in Narbonensis/Hispania he could have moved towards Constantiople. But not before.

Whatever the idea was, the fact is that intervening events during the beginning of 407 delayed the plan and the prolonged wait demanded of the Goths brought its own costs. It would have made sense for Alaric to have only moved his troops to the Italian peninsula at this stage in order to remind Stilicho of his promises and pressure him. This way, Heather’s version would have made sense as the original plan, while Matthews’ account describes what the events of 407 brought about.


The Visigothic Supergroup in the Western Empire: 408-410

The objective of Olympius’ regime was to get rid of all things Stilicho. This included the latter’s political supporters [John Matthews (1975:284-286)] who were all massacred as well as the Goths, whose families were similarly massacred. This appears to be the moment when the tables completely, definitely but expensively turn in favour of Alaric. According to Peter Heather (2005:224), the massacre of Stilicho’s Goths, increases Alaric’s forced to 30,000 in one quick action, as the survivors defect to him. This, together with the troops under Athaulf (Alaric’s brother in law) stationed in Panonnia, he leads what Heather calls the “Visigothic Supergroup”, the largest group of Visigoths ever witnessed under a single non-Roman leadership inside the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile, Constantine III’s regime seems to have temporarily stabilised across the Alps and Alaric was going nowhere. John Matthews (1975: 286-291) and Peter Heather (2005:224-227) describe the sequence of events and negotiations that led to the sack of Rome in 410, a momentous occasion and probably the main accomplishment for which Alaric is remembered.

In the Autumn of 408, Alaric brings this enormous mass of Visigoths across the Alps into Italy and arrives to Rome in November 408. He demanded the payment of his travelling costs, which the Roman senate paid to the tune of 5,000 pounds of gold and 30,000 pounds of silver, plus skins, silks and spices. He then convinced the senate to send an embassy to the Honorius at Ravenna to initiate negotiations for a more durable peace. Given this progress, Alaric withdraws north from Rome to Tuscany. However, some of his forces are ambushed near Pisa, so he returns to Rome to send a senatorial embassy to Ravenna accompanied by a Gothic escort. Heather blames the ambush near Pisa onOlympius and suggests that the arrival of the second gothic-escorted embassy was the last drop necessary to remove him from a position of influence in Honorius’ court. By this stage, Jovius, the subordinate that Stilicho may have put in charge of liaising with the Goths ahead of the failed Gallic-Eastern campaign, was the praetorian prefect for Italy, the highest ranking official in the Italian peninsula and present day Croatia.

By April 409, negotiations begin between Jovius and Alaric. Clearly, Alaric had no intention to replace the Roman Empire’s government. He wanted payment and a livelihood for his people and demanded a fixed provision of Gold and corn every year as well as the right to settle the Goths in the two Venetias, Noricum and Dalmatia. To this he added the demand to be named the head of the Western Empire’s army, Magister Utriusque Militiae. While it would appear that the first two demands were acceptable, the latter was not. According to  Peter Heather (2005:226), after some outrage, Alaric downgraded his demands, removing the military honours for himself, leaving it to Rome to determine the appropriate amounts of gold and corn to provide him with and demanding only the 2 Noricums “on the far reaches of the Danube”. This humble revision of the terms may have represented an acknowledgement on the part of Alaric of the long term fragility of his position within the Empire. Once again, his terms were rejected by the Court of Honorius in Ravenna.


By the end of 409, Alaric had returned to siege Rome, elected a new Emperor in his own name, Priscus Attalus, a Roman of Greek origin who had been the prefectus orbi in 409. Senatorial emissaries were sent to Ravenna threatening Honorius while the Goths subdued the northern Italy and lay siege to Ravenna.

Apparently, the situation became was so dire for Honorius, who had already sent imperial robes to Constantine III in Arles, that mutiny was brewing within the walls of Ravenna and fleeing was contemplated, but “in the nickl of time, 4,000 troops arrived from the East (…) and enough money was sent from North Afica to secure the loyalty of the army in Italy.

So emboldened, one last attempt at negotiations between Alaric and Honorius was destroyed by an attack from the rogue military elements in Honorius’ court, led by Sarus, who after a short period in the wilderness following the coup against Stilicho, found himself back in the service of Honorius’ court. This is the same Gothic general of Stilicho who is reported to have rampaged through the late hegemon’s Hunnic guard after he refused to use the forces under his command to overthrow the conspirators of the Ticino coup of 408.

Thus, and having failed to obtain any of his demands from Rome for the last 2 years and probably facing a restless mass of followers, Alaric resigned himself to sacking Rome,  in order to obtain some modicum of return for his efforts. Until the sack of Rome in 410, Alaric continued to hold on to his demands that the Goths be settled somewhere in the territory of the Roman Empire. Convenience seemed to dictate his demands. Having initially settled in Thrace, inside the diocese of Macedonia, by 409 he seems to have shifted to Noricum, where his followers had moved to in accordance to his plans with Stilicho. I am compelled to agree with Peter Heather (2005:229)’s analysis of the sack of Rome as a failure of Alaric, not as a success. Had that been his initial goal the sack would have probably taken place by 408 or 409 at the latest. Doing so was clearly not beyond his means. However, such was not his intention. The sack did nothing to stabilise the Goth’s status within the Roman empire. They remained without any legitimately recognised sources of revenue, military status or land to call their own.

It’s difficult to judge the intervening characters of this story. Was the Roman upper class as xenophobic as John Matthews (1975:270) suggests? Was Alaric the charismatic and balanced character described by Peter Heather (2005:211-216) or was he the self-interested and ambitious leader described by Kulikowski (2007:165-171)? A balanced judgement would probably recognise the fact that he was all these things, if nothing else at different moments in time. A faction of the Roman aristocracy was clearly xenophobic and accustomed to the narrative of victory and the tradition of implacable and uncompromising imperial Roman glory and barbarian policy described by Peter Heather (2005:72-76,  80). One last character that I have not yet discussed is Galla Placidia, the sister of Honorius, who was in Rome at the time of the sack and was capturde by the Goths, of whom she was to remain a hostage for some time thereafter. Her future remained intertwined with the fate of the Goths and of the Western Empire for some time to come.

Strategically it is important to overestimate the power of Alaric, even at the helm of such a “supergroup” as the one he had after Olympius’ pogroms. During the entire discussion, the army of Italy is effectively absent. The Notitia dignitatum seems to suggest that the Comes Italiae had at his disposal 37 infantry units (8 palatinate legions, 22 auxilia palatine, 4 legions of comitatenses  and 3 pseudocomidatenses) as well as 7 cavalry units (6 vexilationes palatinae and 6 vexilationes palatinae).  Whether all of these were available to him or not is open to discussion although a negative answer seems most plausible. Some would have been stuck in Ravenna, others would have suffered from the Gothic pogroms and subsequent desertions.

Post-Alaric Settlement in Narbonnensis and Constantius III’ Campaigns: 410-418CE

The anti-Gothic policy of Olympius failed to the tune of a sack, so his policy lost its appeal, and he was replaced by a rapid sequence of failed puppet masters, including the praetorian prefect Jovius the praepositus sacri cubiculi, Eusebius the eunuch and the general Allobichus [Peter Heather (2005)] . The structure of power in the West finally stabilised with the rise of Flavius Constantius as Comes et Magister Utriusque, at the end of 410/411. Peter Heather (2005:237) argues that he may have been close to Stilicho given that Olympius was clubbed to death at around the same time, although to be fair, he had failed to such an extent that his failure was cause enough for this punishment by the standard of those day. Kulikowski (2007:181) describes Flavius Constantius as a military and political genius who was able to restore a semblance of stability to the western Roman Empire.

He emerges from this chaotic moment in history as Comes et Magister Utriusque Militiaefrom 411 to 423, when he died as Constantius III, Emperor in the West for 7 months. The magnitude of his contribution during those 12 years cannot be underestimated. The Goths played a fundamental role in his three-pronged strategy for stabilising the Western Empire. After eliminating the threat of Constantine III, Flavius Constantius was left with the problems created by the Gothic group of Alaric and by the threats posed by the Vandals, Alans and Suevi.

Following the sack of Rome, there seems to be some consensus that Alaric moved to southern Italy in the hope to assemble a fleet capable of transporting his people to North Africa where he may have sought to anticipate what the Vandals did 20 years later. Unfortunately for him a storm seems to have destroyed his fleet and he died shortly thereafter (aged 35 or 40), leaving Athaulf  (410-415), his brother in law, to lead the Goths from there onwards. Athaulf ’s first decision was to reverse the course set by Alaric and move his people to the north of Italy. At the suggestion of Priscus Attalus, the now deposed Roman emperor/usurper in his retinue, he moved the Visigoths North into Southern Gaul. The idea for this movement in 412 can be clearly understood in light of the developing situation north of the Alps.

By 409CE, Constantine III‘s luck irrevocably takes a turn to the worst and everything becomes even more chaotic. In Gaul, he is is plagued by attacks from the Franks or the Saxons that undermine the extent to which the Rhine frontier ever was secured. These problems are enhanced by delays in dealing with Bagaudae, and by the presence of the Alans, Vandals and Suevi. Then Constantine III faced two usurpers of his own. Trouble began brewing already in 409 due to the usurpation of Maximus (Gerontius‘ son) in Hispania. The usurpation coincides with the appointment of his son Constans II to the rank of junior Caesar by Constantine III’s, but it appears impossible to determine the direction of causality. There’s an alternative explanation that his usurpers were motivated by the same reasons that drove them to support his usurpation, namely neglect from their ruler. Indeed, much as Constantine III rose to power due to the Western government’s inability to enforce its authority over its own territory, Constantine III focus on southern Gaul and Italian ambitions may have alienated the Armorican and other northern power bases he had previously enjoyed. We should acknowledge the coincidence of Saxon pirate raids in 409 described by Bury (2000:143) with the expulsion of Constantine III’s representatives in Armorica discussed by Birley (2005:459). Remembering that Gerontiuswas himself from Britain, his actions may have been motivated by discontent at the same neglect. Finally, and more likely, as Elton argues Gerontius may simply have succeeding in stopping the advance of the Vandals/Alans and Suevi. Such a success would have popular enough to legitimate a claim, certainly among his troops. Whatever the reason, Constans II was pushed back across the Pyrennes by Gerontius who eventually sieged and captured Vienne in 411, killing Constans II. Gerontius then moves towards Arelate where he besieges Constantine III.

As this is unfolding, Flavius Constantius finally gets Honorio’s army in shape and begins his 3-pronged strategy re-stabilise the west. The first stage requires the end of Roman civil wars and so he moves against Constantine III in Arelate. It is difficult to establish whether he was surprised to face off against Gerontius instead of Constantine III upon arriving at Arelate. However, it seems that Gerontius‘ army defected to Flavius Constantius‘ camp in 411CE. Gerontius manages to retreat to Spain but is killed there. This effectively puts an end to the instability that began with the usurpation of Constantine III’s usurpation in 407/8CE. However, Gaul had been completely overwhelmed by barbarians since 407CE. This created incentives for finding accommodating alternatives to Gerontius, Constantine III or Honorius, much in the same vein as Alaric appointed Priscus Attalus as his own emperor in 409CE and 413CE.

The crossing of the Rhine in 406/7CE did not just create a wave that moved southwards from the Rhine through Gaul across the Pyrenees into Hispania uniformly. Along the way, “the wave” shed some of its components. Although all of the Vandals that crossed the Rhine appear to have made it to  Hispania the same was not true of the Alans. The Alans appear to be the largest and most powerful group that crossed the Rhine, coming to the rescue of the Vandals as they were attacked by the Franks during the crossing. However, after the crossing, the Alans divided into 2 groups. The one led by Respendial moved south across the Pyrenees into Hispania and was eventually absorbed into the Hasgingi Vandals after the campaigns of Constantius III. However, the one led by Goar stayed in Gaul and appears to have settled in somewhere close to the Burgundian kingdom of Gundahar.Gundahar‘s Burgundians appear to have crossed the Rhine together with the other tribes and their kingdom included Mogontiacum (Mainz), Borbetomacus (Worms),Argentoratum (Strasbourg) and the area between the Lauder and the Nahe rivers.


With the death of Gerontius, Goar and Gundahad, possibly inspired by the example of Alaric decided to make sure that they had their own Roman emperor to legitimise their new conquests. Capitalising on the disenfranchisement of Gallo-Roman aristocracy and on the power vaccum of the preceding 7 years, the Alan and Burgundian king appointJovinus, a Gallo-Roman Senator  as their own usurping Emperor in 411CE.

After this detour we can reuturn to the Goths. Last time we saw them, Alaric had just died and Athaulf, his brother in law, had succeeded him in 410CE after the sack of Rome (24 August 410). His first decision was to shift Alaric’s apparent policy of attempting to cross into Carthage and instead decided to move north towards Gaul with Priscus Attalus and Galla Placidia (Theodosius’s daughter and Honorius sister) in his retinue. Given the timings and the fact that his ships were destroyed during a storm in Calabria, Alaric is likely to have died during the winter of 410/411, which means that the Goths are unlikely to have started moving north before March 411. It is difficult to establish how or why, but the coincidence of this migration northwards with the rise of Constantius III may have motivated them to enter Gaul in 412CE. Upon their arrival they would have been confronted with a chaotic geopolitical landscape that included Constantius acting on behalf of Honorius, the usurpation of Jovinus supported by Goar and Gundahar and a roaming Sarus. As the only alternative to a resurgent but much antagonised Honorius, Jovinus found himself at the centre of attention of more camps than he could satisfy. The agreed upon narrative is that Jovinus would have taken Sarus into his service. For some reason, possibly personal hatred, Athaulf kills Sarus. This displeases Jovinus (if ever he was pleased by Athaulf) who ignores Athaulf and appoints his brother Sebastianusas his co-ruler. Displeased, Athaulf chases the two brothers to Valentia, where he captures them and hands them both to Honorius’ Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, Claudius Postumus Dardanus, who has both decapitated by 413CE.

With this deed, Athaulf appears to gain a temporary respite from Honorius that allows him to settle in Nabonensis and to marry Galla Placidia in 414CE with whom he has a child. However, at this time, Flavius Constantius begins to put into motion the 2nd stage of his 3-pronged strategy to restabilise the West and begins a blockade of the southern coast of Gaul that forces Athaulf to retreat across the Pyrenees into Hispania. There, he takes under his service a man who had served under Saru sand who kills Athaulf as revenge for the death of his late patron in August 415CE in Barcelona. Sarus‘s cousin, Sigeric, takes over the leadership of the Visigothic group but because he comes from outside the rulling Balti clan his reign only lasts 5 days before he is replaced by Wallia. Wallia then begins a policy of appeasement with Honorius and Flavius Constantius, returning Galla Placidia and placing himself and his Goths as dependents of the Emperor. The old relationship as foederati is re-established. The Goths provide military service as auxiliaries of the Roman Empire and are in return provided land in Aquitania I and (capital Tolosa [Toulouse]), thus concluding the second phase of Flavius Constantius‘ plan. For the next years, the Visigoths remain the faithful allies of Rome, participating in the Hispanic campaigns of Flavius Constantius against that defeat the Alans and the Silingi Vandals, concentrating the survivors around the Asdingi Vandals of Gunderic (father of theGinseric) that will eventually make their way to Carthage in 439CE.



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