Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome by Douglas Boin

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.”