In 410 AD, Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, breached Rome’s walls, likely with the aid of collaborators, and led an army of thousands into the city. Alaric’s sack of Rome was the culmination of a decade’s worth of campaigns against an increasingly unstable western imperial state, which had grown incapable of controlling its hinterlands and the people who inhabited them, including the Visigoths.
This was also the first time in eight centuries that the city of Rome’s defenses had ruptured. Luckily for the Romans, Alaric was a professed Christian. He gave refuge to those who sought safety in churches and implored his men not to plunder religious artifacts. Following a three-day pillaging of the city, the Goths under Alaric’s command began a campaign southward for Sicily that was derailed by a devastating storm. Less than a year after sacking Rome, Alaric died of a sudden, unknown illness. In the wake of his death, the Goths retreated from the Italian peninsula and established a kingdom within the bounds of the Western Roman Empire, in the French region of Aquitaine. The swift rise and fall of Alaric has often been depicted in arts and letters, typically as an apocalyptic moment in the history of Rome—the beginning of the end. Nevertheless, an English language biography of Alaric was not available until the historian Douglas Boin took on the task.
Boin’s Alaric the Goth is an entertaining, highly readable account of a figure who has previously been regarded as a pitiless heel straight from central casting. Boin, in a fresh approach, looks at the events leading up to the sack of Rome from the Goths’ perspective; thus Alaric is a cultural outsider, a transient, non-citizen within the Roman realm, seeking out the privileges afforded those with Roman citizenship. Alaric admired Roman culture and, like thousands of other Goths, had fought on its behalf before turning on the Empire. Falling in line with historians since Edward Gibbon, Boin attributes Alaric I’s rise to the political and cultural fragmentation of the Empire. Unlike Gibbon, however, Boin presents Alaric and his cohort as something other than brutes.
This is not nearly as presentist as it sounds. Certainly, Boin wishes to make points about contemporary cultural conflict and notions of citizenship. He is preoccupied with the ideas of “borders” and “xenophobia” within the Roman Empire, presenting Alaric’s actions as a response to the exclusion of migrant Goths from full participation in the politics and economy of the realm. Nevertheless, Boin is rarely heavy-handed in his approach, restricting most of his thinly veiled swipes at the politics of 2020 to the preface and epilogue. At times, he can be a bit free in his use of contemporary “-isms,” but he makes the implicit and reasonable claim that the roots of most modern ideologies stretch back, in some way, to the Roman world. Boin’s Alaric I is a partisan for his people in the traditional sense. He seeks tangible assets for them more than he seeks abstract notions of civic participation. In the end, the Goths wound up with plenty of the ultimate tangible asset: land.
Alaric the Goth is a work of noteworthy historical portraiture. Boin, a widely published professor of Ancient History at Saint Louis University, mines the relatively scant sources on Alaric I to create a compelling, historically situated biography of the original King of the Visigoths. While a great deal of Roman historiography deals in the grand scale, Boin has crafted a human-sized representation of a major—if heretofore not very well known—figure in the last century of the Western Roman Empire. Boin takes particular care in rendering the surviving details of Alaric’s childhood. For example, he attributes Alaric’s sense of identity as a Goth to his love for the Danube Delta in which he was raised. Boin paints a picture of Peuce (“Pine Tree”) Island, the marshy, heavily forested island at the mouth of the Danube where Alaric spent his boyhood, known for its steep cliffs, swamplands, and wildflowers. The author is careful not to oversell the historical fragments, letting the mystery be whenever the sources are silent.
Boin writes in lyrical and breezy prose, which will likely broaden the appeal of the book’s decidedly antiquarian topic. He deserves praise for presenting ancient history in such an accessible way. The black-and-white illustrations which dot the text are particularly vivid and play an important role in helping to tell the story. Alaric the Goth, with its dramatic, tomato-red cover and Roman lettering, stands out on any bookshelf, and is well situated to become a solid seller in the popular history market. The book’s unusual angle of historical attack, concise length, and approachable style make it the perfect companion for reading at home, on vacation, or in transit.