You may think, as I once did, that the Visigoths who sacked Rome in 410 were fierce pagan barbarians with no respect for Christianity. In fact, they were Christians. Their leader, Alaric, was an observant Christian who once suffered a surprise attack while he was celebrating Easter.

The Goths, an East Germanic tribe that appeared on the lower Danube frontier of the Roman Empire in the third century eventually split into the East and West Goths (Ostrogoths and Visigoths).

Once in contact with Roman culture, the Goths were quick to adopt Christianity. By mid-fourth century, they had a Bible in their own language. The translation was the work of Bishop Ulfias. the descendant of Greek slaves taken by the Goths in a previous generation. As the Goths lacked a written language, Ulfias created an Gothic alphabet based on Greek letters.

Although Alaric and his Visigoths were Christians, their sack of Rome is usually depicted in history and art as the act of barbarians.

A 19th century imagining of the Visigoth sack of Rome in 410 CE. --J.N. Sylvestre (1847-1926). Historical personages who were Arians are frequently presented as if they were not Christians at all.

Contrary to popular belief, early practitioners of Christianity were not all on the same page. Until Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in CE 325 for the purpose of unifying the different Christian teachings of the time, Arian Christianity was as respectable as any other kind.

Arian Christians disagreed with Catholic Christians regarding the nature of Christ. Catholics taught that God and Jesus were of the same substance and co-eternal. Arian Christians took the position that God existed first, that God created Jesus and then Jesus created the universe.

Aware that religious differences can breed political strife, Constantine wanted to see the bishops agree on one, orthodox position. With few exceptions, bishops at the Council of Nicea agreed to accept the co-eternal doctrine. The dissenters were exiled, and it was declared a crime to teach the Arian position.

However, just because the bishops agreed did not mean that all the practicing Arian Christians in the Roman Empire immediately followed suit. Nearly 200 years after the Council’s decision, Arian Christianity continued to thrive.

Clovis, King of the Franks, being baptized by Saint Rémy. According to legend, Clovis was anointed with holy oil brought by a dove from heaven.

Take, for example, the much celebrated conversion of the pagan Frankish king Clovis (c. 466–511). If his wife hadn’t been a maverick, his famous baptism might not have made the historical headlines.

Clovis married a Burgundian princess named Clothilde. The Burgundians, like the Visigoths, were a Germanic tribe that converted from paganism to Arian Christianity in the third century. Most of Clothilde’s royal relatives were Arian Christians, but for some reason, Clothilde embraced Catholic Christianity. It was to her brand of Christianity that Clovis converted.

Back to Alaric: the Visigoths who sacked Rome in 410 were not pagan barbarians.

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