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.

6 Responses

  1. Link,
    I think you may be referring to Ulfias’s declaration of faith. I do not know if the original was written in Latin or in Greek. I have read it in two English translations, one of which seems to suggest that Ulfias thought of the Holy Spirit in terms of personhood; the other describes the Holy Spirit as a “power.”

    You ask if it’s possible that “‘Arian’ tribes did not hold to Arius’ position at all.” Arius took more than one position contrary to Nicene belief. As time went on, such a thing as “Semi-Arianism” arose and rejected some of Arius’s positions, but every variety was marked by the belief that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit were of a different substance than God the Father. I think it’s doubtful that enough material about Arian belief has survived to know what they believed.

  2. I read a confession Ulfias held to that acknowledged the deity of Christ but did not contain the Nicene language regarding the Spirit. I wonder if some of these ‘Arian’ tribes did not hold to Arius’ position at all but rather rejected Nicene theology on the personhood of the Spirit.

  3. Willian J. Lassiter
    Your’re right, it was a matter of backpay. The Visigoths were badly treated after loyal service. Although the Visigoths who sacked Rome were Christians, they did commit a few atrocities during the three-day occupation. Alaric, however, did not die there. He left with booty and prisoners, including the the Emperor’s sister, who happened to be there at the time. She later married another Visigoth king. Can’t say if it was willingly. Alaric died just a few months after the sack, probably of fever.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. Fascinating. Yes, they seem to have neither been pagan NOR barbarian as they were all Roman military trained; spoke Latin, wore Latin dress, employed Latin mannerisms. They were part of the auxilii (I think it was called) = the “native” troops trained to protect and police the area under Roman command. According to worldhistory.org –
    “He (Alaric) commanded the Gothic allies, fighting alongside the Romans at the Battle of River Frigidus in 394 CE, a battle waged between the eastern emperor Theodosius I and the western usurper emperor Eugenius.”
    So Alaric seems to have been a Romanized Arian Christian who supported Theodosius (the legit emperor) against Eugenius (the usurping emperor) and the Franks. After his service he was not recognized by the Senate in any meaningful way even though he was the only real player in the Balkans at the time.
    Hilaire Belloc writes that the whole “sacking of Rome” thingummy was that they descended on the capitol to demand back pay (hadn’t been paid in months) but were denied but the elitist and bureaucratic senate and told to go home. They didn’t (or at least, not until they had gotten their pay in local goods stripped from the city – perhaps a few bonfires were involved, too). Alaric died in Rome, I guess.
    Anyway, thanks for the article.

  5. Politics, warfare, economics and statecraft are all intertwined with theology, philosophy and literature to form the tapestry of human development as seen through the legacy of Western Civilization.

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