Denied citizenship by the Roman Empire, a soldier named Alaric changed history by unleashing a surprise attack on the capital city of an unjust empire.
Stigmatized and relegated to the margins of Roman society, the Goths were violent “barbarians” who destroyed “civilization,” at least in the conventional story of Rome’s collapse. But a slight shift of perspective brings their history, and ours, shockingly alive.
Alaric grew up near the river border that separated Gothic territory from Roman. He survived a border policy that separated migrant children from their parents, and he was denied benefits he likely expected from military service. Romans were deeply conflicted over who should enjoy the privileges of citizenship. They wanted to buttress their global power, but were insecure about Roman identity; they depended on foreign goods, but scoffed at and denied foreigners their own voices and humanity. In stark contrast to the rising bigotry, intolerance, and zealotry among Romans during Alaric’s lifetime, the Goths, as practicing Christians, valued religious pluralism and tolerance. The marginalized Goths, marked by history as frightening harbingers of destruction and of the Dark Ages, preserved virtues of the ancient world that we take for granted.
The three nights of riots Alaric and the Goths brought to the capital struck fear into the hearts of the powerful, but the riots were not without cause. Combining vivid storytelling and historical analysis, Douglas Boin reveals the Goths’ complex and fascinating legacy in shaping our world.
In this eye-opening revisionist history, St. Louis University historian Boin (Coming Out Christian in the Roman World) recounts the life and times of Alaric, the Gothic ruler who sacked Rome in 410 CE after laying siege to the city on two previous occasions. According to Boin, the Goths, a Germanic people from present-day Romania and Ukraine, saw their status as Roman citizens disappear in the fourth and fifth centuries due to territorial losses and the adoption and cementing of Christianity as the empire's sole religion. Drawing on contemporaneous and early medieval records, Boin chronicles Alaric's transformation from loyal general in the Roman army to disillusioned enemy of the state, and stresses that Goth invaders treated Romans humanely when they finally penetrated the city. Taking issue with depictions of Alaric and the Goths as violent barbarians in histories by Edward Gibbon and Rodolfo Lanciani, Boin discusses how the term Gothic has been erroneously appropriated over the centuries to describe anything "weird" and "scary." His brisk and well-documented account reveals the Roman Empire 50 years before its collapse as a decadent society rife with xenophobia and political conflict. This invigorating rehash of ancient times speaks clearly to the modern world.