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

2021, 272 p.

Just a little shift of perspective can bring a whole new way of seeing. When we think of “The Goths”, we tend to think of something dark, gloomy and menacing. “The Goths” are often linked with the category of “Barbarian” and they are seen as one of the main causes of the downfall of that marbled, marvellous empire of Rome. But if we shift our focus slightly, we can see the Goths as a tribal group with their own territorial, cultural and political aspirations within and alongside an arrogant culture which was happy to use their labour and bodies but with-hold any power. “The torture of our powerlessness” was how the Uluru Statement described it in Australian history, and in Douglas Boin’s biography of Alaric the Goth, we see how this powerlessness was turned against a society eaten hollow from within by compromises made to protect the wealth and interest of the powerful.

Alaric was born in around 370CE in what is now Romania. He lived close to the banks of the Danube River, a physical border which at some times was outside the Roman Empire or, at other times, was seen as a provincial part of the Empire. The designation of the border determined whether an inhabitant might be eligible to be a Roman citizen or not. In 212 Emperor Caracalla published the Antonine Declaration, which immediately gave citizenship to every free-born resident of a Roman province. However, by 275CE Rome had abandoned Dacia, along the Danube, as a Roman province, and had withdrawn its legal system and financial investment, along with its military. Had Alaric been born 150 years earlier, he would have been a Roman citizen.

As it was, by 370CE the only way he could achieve citizenship was to serve in the army for decades, and that is what he did. Goths could serve in the Roman army, but instead of marking inclusion, the presence of non-Roman soldiers was a sign of Rome’s entropy. Italian landowners did not want to pay taxes, so Rome had to keep expanding outwards to take in more tax-paying inhabitants, without actually making them citizens. Wealthy Roman families kept their best workers hidden, so that they would not be drafted into the army and so the Roman army became dependent on mercenaries from the surrounding peoples. Alaric, who had the trust of the Goth troops he led, moved up the military ranks, but the imperial government always maintained a ceiling on the aspirations of its ‘alien’ generals. After having his troops used as cannon fodder in battles, and being sidelined and retrenched once too often, Alaric rallied the Goths against Rome. His knowledge of Roman tactics and logistics empowered him to take the battle right to Rome itself, which his troops ‘sacked’ in 410CE , although even this ‘sacking’ did respect the sanctuary provided by churches, as Alaric shared the Christian faith of the Roman Empire by this time.

Any historian working on this era is frustrated by the partisanship and paucity of sources. There is no written record of Alaric until he emerges as an adult, and Boin has to rely heavily on Jordanes’ The Origins and Deeds of the Goths, the only Gothic history book which survives from antiquity. In this absence, Boin extrapolates and turns around the sources we do have from other perspectives to locate Alaric within the broader historical movements of the time. He is aware of the dangers and limitations of this approach, but I think that he succeeds in providing a context and a rationale for Alaric’s actions. His argument that the bombastic attitude of Roman society towards ‘outsiders’ is a strong one, which has resonances for today’s politics of the West as well. As well as fleshing out a biography for Alaric this book is, as the title suggests ‘An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome’ and although Boin suggests most of the same factors as other historians, by shifting the focus to the success of the Goths rather than the failure of the Romans, these factors become personalized.

Although Boin does not mention it at all, this book fits well into the recent turn to the History of Emotions. Any Roman history is incomplete without battles (particularly if it’s a biography of a general and warrior) but Boin focuses more on the individual’s experience of warfare rather than military strategies. Insult, frustration and pride – the emotions of oppression and injustice- are given full weight, and make this a very human biography. I have only come to Roman History recently, and I prefer big history on a human scale.

The book is beautifully written. Boin has a light touch, a good eye for description, and takes the reader – including readers (like me) with little knowledge of Rome, or the Goths – along with him. There are little digressions which detract him (and the reader) at times, perhaps because as a historian he could not resist the more definitive sources that did come his way. Judging by Goodreads comments, readers either tend to love it or hate the book. For me, it was a really engaging read in its own right for its exploration of an individual and the broader forces of history.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: own copy.

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