History’s “great” events are so considered because they represent, depending on whom you ask, momentous beginnings or ends. The year 410 C.E., when the Gothic soldier Alaric sacked Rome, has traditionally served as shorthand for the latter, splitting antiquity’s most powerful civilization and delivering its Western capital, in Edward Gibbon’s words, “to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.” While the late empire’s ailments—rot of every description—are familiar, its nemesis remains an enigma. Gibbon was unsure “whether fame, or conquest, or riches were the object of Alaric.” Douglas Boin, too, acknowledges that “the public record of Alaric’s life is frustratingly thin.” Yet he is less equivocal. In Alaric the Goth, Boin honors “the foreigner who forced the most powerful politicians of his day to think twice about who they called a ‘barbarian.’”
Alaric came of age in modern-day Romania on the empire’s precarious northern border, which had been fixed by Trajan some three centuries before. The exiled love poet Ovid observed of the Roman frontier: “Peace there is at times, confidence in peace never.” A military career—offering Alaric education, adventure, glory, and citizenship, in that order—beckoned. Despite an impressive and promising fighting record under the emperor Theodosius, culminating in the Battle of Frigidus, Alaric grew disenchanted with the army’s arbitrary and hopelessly remote system of rewards. As Boin notes, “Options were few.”
Boin honors “the foreigner who forced the most powerful politicians of his day to think twice about who they called a ‘barbarian.’”
Alaric turned against Rome and would become the first to despoil it in 800 years. But success was short-lived. He died suddenly—the cause can only be guessed at—within several months of his triumph. The precise motivations for Alaric’s about-face are unknown; the extant sources are partisan and inconclusive.
Rot of Every Description
With the Romans we are on firmer ground. Not unlike British imperial policy, their colonial style was give-and-take—minus the give. Conquest afforded trade, patronage, manpower, and the opportunity to lord their Romanitas over subject peoples. Distinguishing themselves from foreigners and keeping alien forces at bay were proud ancestral virtues. Octavian’s anti-Antony-and-Cleopatra propaganda in the first century B.C.E. is awash in soft Eastern stereotypes. Horatius Cocles was celebrated by Plutarch—and, in time, Macaulay—for staving off Etruscan invaders at the gates of Rome in the sixth century B.C.E. Divorced from Octavian’s brilliance and Horatius’s bravery, these attitudes hardened into the guiding principles of Alaric’s Roman betters, the mos maiorum, or customs of their forebears.
Boin’s critique of fifth-century Rome is justified. Its backward drift and frail institutions invited ruin, Alaric or no. So far so good. I’m afraid, however, that Boin lost me with his wishful insistence on the inverse righteousness of the Goths.
Donald Trump’s degrading presidency has oozed into every corner of contemporary life—including, apparently, the interpretation of the ancient world. Boin, an associate professor at Saint Louis University whose prose is clear and often lively, has re-cast the lazy Alaric-as-monster rendition as an equally unconvincing Trump-era morality play starring Alaric as culture warrior. The Goths are humble, hardworking, and harassed by “border patrols” and anti-immigration elites. Rome is the seat of fanatical Christians, epicures with only “a modicum of self-awareness” and “rabid xenophobes” who borrow their us-versus-them bigotry, as with most of their ideas, from the Greeks. In this vein, Boin deems the Parthenon “a jingoistic billboard, a statement about Athenian superiority over the barbaric forces of Persia.” Jingoism has surely never looked so good.
Boin has re-cast the lazy Alaric-as-monster rendition as an equally unconvincing Trump-era morality play starring Alaric as culture warrior.
Reflecting on the ongoing “statue wars,” the classicist Mary Beard questions “a view of history that divides it into goodies and baddies”: “The truth is that there is no such simple version of history, or for that matter of the present: people who do good also do bad (and vice versa) and our own heroes and heroines will in due course be found wanting (or worse) too. Maybe it is the act of heroizing that is the problem, not the inevitably flawed individuals themselves.” Alaric the Goth is of the crude goodie/baddie variety, replacing cracked Roman idols with an immaculate and largely unpersuasive 21st-century hero.
Even Alaric’s violence is rationalized: “His decision to attack the city, while admittedly extreme, was his last and perhaps most effective weapon for gaining the attention of a government that refused to make him its full partner or his people full citizens.” Ironically, Alaric would have been well on his way to gaining citizenship for 25 years of military service in 410. In any case, Boin’s suspect logic is ice-cold comfort to the innocent, just as pontificating about America’s meddling abroad does little for the families of 9/11 victims.
“Medieval and modern Europe owes much of its complicated heritage to the life of Alaric,” Boin writes, “a bold, aggressive, outspoken, and idealistic immigrant who died a failure.” To be idealistic is to have clearly defined ideals. Though Alaric was an inspiring leader—and Rome by then an uninspiring society—Alaric’s ideals, such as they were, are closed to us. Boin’s contention that “Alaric’s quest for change, motivated by decades of encounters with bigotry and xenophobia, challenge hysterical notions about this pivotal moment in ancient history” says less about the past than it does about the present. (And why not, then, Attila?) Our political and social problems are acute. But let’s leave the Goths out of it.
Max Carter is the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s in New York