11th August 2013: I am whiling away a train journey (a very long train journey) wondering whom I would most like to have dinner with from history. I consider Camille, the most charming of the French revolutionaries, but decide that I might not get a word in edgewise. I think about Mark Antony and Cleopatra, but decide that they will be too busy throwing plates at each other to concentrate on the supper. I am tempted by Hector from the Iliad, but then I think that if Camille talks too much Hector might not talk at all. And so, after considering various options – I told you it was a long journey – and after consulting Google on my phone, I settle on Alaric, king of the Goths. For various reasons.
Firstly, because the Goths were so interesting. They were a barbarian tribe who first appeared in history in the late 4th century at the end of the Roman Empire. They came from the mysterious land of Gothia which lay just beyond the borders of the Empire, and whose lands still run flat for hundreds of miles as far as the Russian steppes. It was a place where Romans rarely went, except on marauding expeditions or as part of hostage deals.
The Romans feared and hated the Goths, believing that they were treacherous, that they were possessed by demons and that they spoke the language of animals. And yet at the same time they couldn’t do without them (for the Goths were formidable fighters) and so the Goths were everywhere at the end of the Roman Empire, on both sides of the frontier, feasting with emperors, marrying princesses, fighting the Empire’s battles.
The Goths, for their part, envied the Romans their baths, their wine and their comforts, but otherwise preferred each other. The love of the Goths for their brothers was legendary. The barbarian kiss of comradeliness sealed a love that lasted til death.
And of all the Goths Alaric is the most interesting. He was the son of a Gothic king and was born on an island in the Danube on the frontiers of the Empire. The Romans took him hostage as a child and brought him up as part of the family of the Emperor Theodosius. But then his people called him home – because they were being squeezed by invaders from the east – and voted him their king and begged him to help them. And so Alaric took them west into Roman territory, the old people and the children in the swaying, creaking wagons, the Gothic warriors trudging along the roads beside them. Alaric was demanding a kingdom for his people. He was living proof that in the end blood calls to blood and you cannot trust a barbarian.
The Romans wouldn’t negotiate. He tried to talk to the Emperor Honorius, son of the late Theodosius and so in effect Alaric’s brother, but Honorius had fled to Ravenna from where he first gave his word and then withdrew it. And so at last with a kind of lordly reluctance Alaric sacked Rome and the western Empire never recovered. Alaric died in southern Italy and his grieving men diverted the course of the Busento river, buried him in the stream bed along with his treasures, and then released the waters so that they flowed back over him. His grave has never been found.
I decide that over dinner I will ask Alaric what it felt like to be brought up as a child hostage in the palace in Constantinople, what did he really think of the Romans, did he mean to bring the Empire down, did he know what was going to happen?
There is nothing (as far as I know) in any UK museum that connects us directly to Alaric, although if you go to the Musee de Cluny in Paris you will see there a crown that was once worn by the seventh-century kings of Toledo, who were descendants of the Spanish Goths and so distant cousins of Alaric. It is a beautiful thing – like a cake ring, but made from beaten gold and with large, mauvish rubies hanging off it.
And if you go to the Museum of London you will see an Anglo-Saxon brooch that was found in the ruins of a Roman house in the City of London. It was dropped there in about 450 AD when London was a ghost town; presumably it was lost by a woman or a girl, clambering through the ruins. By this time it was forty years since Alaric had sacked Rome. Did her parents or her grandparents tell her about it? And did she make the connection between the far-off ruins of Rome and the ruins of London in which she was now standing.
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