Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Spicy Demands of The Visigoth King Alaric

Alaric was a Visigoth who, like many of his kinsmen, had served in the Roman military under Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395). Upon the death of Theodosius I, the emperor’s two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, took control of the eastern and western halves of the empire, respectively. Around that same time (c. 394-395), Alaric also ascended to power—he became King of the Visigoths. With the empire fractured and going through the strains of succession, King Alaric seized the opportunity to forcefully renegotiate the status quo between his people and the Romans.

Seeking resources, land and, if possible, citizenship in the Roman Empire, King Alaric led his Visigoths first against the Roman east. He was quickly diverted, however, and rerouted his ambitions to the west, with his sights specifically set on the city of Rome. For most of the first decade of the 5th century, Alaric’s maneuvers were constantly countered by the skilled Roman-Vandal general, Flavius Stilicho. Emperor Honorius, however, executed Stilicho in 408, leaving King Alaric’s growing power unchecked.

From 408-410, King Alaric held annual sieges of Rome. Much of this time he spent trying to negotiate with Emperor Honorius. He was willing to return to his position as an ally of Rome if his people were granted land, resources and an improved status in the empire. Alaric, however, could never get the emperor to make a deal, even after capturing Honorius’ sister, setting up a puppet emperor, and obtaining the promise of the Roman Senate to mediate negotiations between Alaric and Honorius.

As he was still trying to negotiate with the Romans, King Alaric was willing to accept bribes to call off his sieges of Rome. In 408, the Senate was said to have paid off the Visigoths with an enormous two tons of gold, and thirteen more tons of silver. Alaric was also given thousands of silk garments and fleeces. Yet, the Visigoth king also wanted another luxurious commodity—Piper nigrum, better known as black pepper, which was perhaps the most demanded spice in the ancient and medieval world. Along with the other bribes sent in 408, the Romans were said to have scrounged together a whopping 3,000 pounds of black pepper to be sent to the Visigoths.

Despite the material bribes, Alaric never received his true goals from the years of negotiating with the Romans. He eventually lost his patience in 410 and sacked the city of Rome for three days. Not too long after, King Alaric died of illness and was buried by his forces somewhere in southern Italy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (King Alaric in Athens, by Ludwig Thiersch, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations by Norman Davies. New York: Viking (Penguin Group), 2011. 
  • Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012. 

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