“On This Day in History”
On this day in history,
Sixteen hundred and five years ago,
Alaric the Visigoth
And his Christian Barbarian hordes
Rolled into the greatest city in the world—
Or so its residents still stubbornly called it—
For their third occupation,
And the sacking that would go down in history.
Honorius, Caesar in Ravenna,
Refused to give the Visigoths a place to call their own.
Alaric tried to ask.
He tried to be polite.
He really was a civilized barbarian.
(After all, he wasn’t born in the city he was sacking!)
But Honorius wouldn’t listen.
He didn’t like to listen.
(And he had a cockerel that he had dubbed after his so-called capital.)
Without receiving any concessions,
Alaric tried to seize the capital,
To force capitulation.
“Burn nothing you don’t have to,
And don’t touch the churches!”
Were the orders of the day.
Holy relics were left alone.
(For the greater part, at least.)
The city still stood when the Goths left,
Even if the people were saddened,
And even poorer than before.
(And they had already been near destitute.)
It really was a unique sacking.
There was rape and pillage, of course.
Slaughter, yes. But not on the usual scale.
The pagans thought Christianity was at fault;
Pagan sacrifices had been banned so recently
(Well, less than a century, if you can call that recent)
So surely the city fell as Jupiter’s revenge!
The Bishop of Hippo—St. Augustine, to you—
Wrote books and books and books to insist otherwise.
He said Alaric’s leniency was due to Christianity—
But not that the Barbarian Alaric could have learnt Christian values,
Because how could a Barbarian learn?—
Rather he said that Christ personally had protected the city.
(D’you know the Sting song “St. Augustine in Hell”? I like that one…)
Alaric conquered the city
All roads once led to,
And he went down in history.
But he didn’t win a place for his people to live,
And he left the city in defeat,
Despite his plunder.
The stubborn nature of Honorius won the day,
Even if the night fell to Alaric’s blades.
Alaric died not long after,
And his brother a few years later.
But a few years after that,
The Visigoths were finally settled in Gaul,
In the part of France we now know as
Toulouse, in Aquitaine.
(Could Eleanor trace her descent back to those Visigoth leaders?
That would be so cool! Probably not the case, but…)
Stunned survivors wrote and wrote.
As they wrote the sack was turned into a slaughter.
A slaughter and an outrage.
The collapse of a great civilization.
It wasn’t even a great civilization.
It hadn’t been powerful for centuries,
And it had never been “great” at all,
Not in the ways they intended.
Alaric is known now as the Barbarian Destroyer,
The Toppler of the legacy of Julius and Augustus.
Their heirs had already long since toppled that legacy,
With no need of Visigothic invaders.
Let’s call Alaric what he was:
A chap who wanted the best for his people,
And fought to obtain it,
Even if it was only gotten after his death.
If you want to learn about Alaric the Visigoth, check out Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, which I’ve been reading lately. And yes, the conventional date for Alaric’s entry into the city is August 24, 410. (Whether that’s accurate is another question entirely.)
Sorry it started to lose any slight sense of poetry after a while and just turned into a history lesson with weird line endings. (But hey! I wrote about the sacking of a city without being able to refer directly to the city or its people!)