Alaric the Goth: An Outsider's History of the Fall of Rome

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Release Date: 
June 9, 2020
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

According to Victor Hugo, a barbarian of civilization is preferable to a civilized barbarian. Alaric the Goth was supposedly the former. He lived on the edge of the Roman Empire and became its enemy. He died a “failure” after sacking Rome in 410 CE, extinguishing the “bright light of all the world,” according to Saint Augustine. The Goths solidified their Kingdom over the next three centuries. Rome crumbled.

The word gothic still stands for weird and scary. Yet the Goths’ legal code and religious tolerance “shaped the history of the continent,” according to author, Douglas Boin. He tells of “an immigrant . . . the Romans would have understood as a ‘refugee.’” Rome, after all, was supposedly an “asylum for refugees.” In the “bastion of unrivalled wealth and power,” though, refugees were despised.

So, a story is also told here about civilized barbarity. Romans had a “nagging fear of people who looked or sounded different.” Romanitas (being Roman) supposedly meant diversity under “Roman values,” including tolerance, but the truth was a “combustible mix of xenophobia and cultural supremacy.”

This book is highly worth reading, among other things, for intriguing detail about ancient life, not just in the “Eternal City” itself but in Athens to which wealthy Romans escaped and sent their children to be educated. In its gardens, “justice walked, personified, across its stages” where “the ancients sought challenging stories and surprising viewpoints to teach them to see the world differently.”

Alaric admired the Roman Empire until his death. There was much to admire. He enthusiastically enlisted in the empire’s army as a young man and quickly distinguished himself. He watched tens of thousands of his fellow Goths die in defense of that empire. Boin writes that “all he probably wanted was an open door.” For Boin, “the ultimate tragedy of ancient history” is that freedom of expression and religious tolerance were put at risk by a fourth century emperor who imposed Christian identity.

But the civilized barbarity, according to how Boin tells the story, is quite likely not failure of tolerance. This is not what motivates oppressed people, as Alaric was motivated, toward spectacular dramatic events likely to bring about their own destruction. Frantz Fanon argued (in Wretched of the Earth) that when a people’s humanity is denied, and expected to be denied, violence becomes reasonable.

No one wants to be “tolerated” as sub-human. There are things people do at great risk to themselves because if they did not, they could not live with themselves. But the “could not live with themselves” is as human beings. Interestingly, Boin tells us that three days after devastating Rome, its first attack by foreigners in 800 years, Alaric and his group packed up and walked away, to the south.

Alaric resisted those who wanted to take the Empire over. Instead, he intended to lead his group to a “quiet piece of Africa,” a part of the Roman Empire with warm air and fields to cultivate.

“What is to be gained?” is not always the right question. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe, an escaped slave, tries to kill her children to protect them from slavery. As result, one child is dead, and slavery remains. But Sethe is not irrational. The question is not: What does she gain? Instead, it is: How does death become a real option for someone who is rational, responsible, and loves her children?

The answer is dehumanization. Sethe’s good friend, Paul D, also a “used-to-be-slave,” says: “More frightening that what Sethe did was what Sethe claimed.”

She claimed her humanity. It is plausible, given all we learn in this fascinating book, that Alaric was motivated, not by desire for an “open door”—tolerance—but by truth about his own humanity, systemically denied by an arrogant empire. Empires don’t like truth. Boin points out that it was not the academically skilled Romans who worked for historical truth about Alaric. It was North African Muslims.

Alaric may not have died a failure, as Boin says he did. Hugo said “thoughtful people rarely use the terms, the happy and the unhappy. . . . The true division of humanity is this. Those filled with light and those filled with darkness.” Like the ancient hedonistic Empire, today’s empire seeks its own happiness. But some will always resist its claim to cultural supremacy. They fight for truth: about who is human.

They suffer and may die but not necessarily as failures.