Lacking personal particulars, Boin paints a richly detailed portrait of the world in which Alaric maneuvered, defined by the thrashings of an empire in turmoil ... It is by now common wisdom among academics that the Germanic peoples whose incursions contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire were seeking to be part of it, not to destroy it. Boin conveys this scholarly insight to general readers in a cogent, readable text that vividly conveys the fear and confusion that surrounded the issue of immigrants’ rights in a period of declining Roman power. He draws the contemporary parallels with a freedom that teeters on the brink of overstatement, but his handling of the relocated Gothic boys’ deaths is characteristic of his bold yet scrupulous reading of ancient sources.
... a smart book for the general reader ... It is hardly Douglas Boin’s fault that the balance in his narrative between 'the man' and 'his times' is no balance at all. The scales tilt heavily toward Alaric’s times—a rich subject in its own right—and Boin renders the confusion of the era without replicating that confusion in his prose. Alaric can never emerge as a fully three-dimensional figure, but in Boin’s hands he is lifted convincingly from the realm of brutish caricature ... not a polemic. It never invokes modern times explicitly. But the linguistic anachronisms are inescapable. Intended perhaps to be slyly allusive, they come across as winks.
Without his thoughts having survived, the subtitle, An Outsider’s History, feels more aptly applied to sixth century, medieval, and eighteenth-century historians who used Alaric’s deeds to bolster their criticisms of Rome as well as the modern reader peering at a world so far apart but not so unlike our own, in which bigotry, inequity, and hedonism war with ideas of inclusion, freedom, and equal aspirations for all. Anyone who appreciates vividly detailed stories of the past or is morbidly curious about the dying days of a wealthy, self-important, diverse, autocratic global power should pick this up.
First impressions count for a great deal, and this first encounter with Alaric in Mr. Boin’s narrative—one that need not have even occurred, given the unreliability of the sources—hardly bears out the view that he later tries to adduce. He seems to want to have it both ways in his presentation of Alaric, making him out to be a dashing brigand at some points, an oppressed Roman wannabe at others. Readers of Alaric the Goth will often be uncertain which side its subject is on or what he is fighting for ... It’s apparent from Alaric the Goth that Mr. Boin, whose previous books have dealt with social and regional history, is more skilled at applying a broad brush than the more focused tools of biography. The most engaging parts of Alaric the Goth, and by far the greater portion of its contents, diverge from Alaric’s story to give a sweeping view of Roman life near the fall of the empire. It’s here, especially in matters of Christian-pagan tension, that Mr. Boin excels rather than in trying to fathom the complex Gothic warlord of his title.
... assembles everything modern scholarship can know or reasonably guess about this figure, although the sheer amount of doubt and patchwork that remains accounts for both the relative brevity of the book and for the fact that Boin is often prompted to issue factual disclaimers ... Alaric’s career is reconstructed with an intense, almost conversational readability and one of the most consistently pleasing elements of the job Boin does in these pages is the element of surprise, a certain lack of complacency that sees the author questioning things that might stand as givens in a less inquisitive book. Even the most predictable backdrop of the Alaric story - the alleged systemic debauchery and corruption of 5th century Rome - is here given a refreshing re-appraisal ... far more of a biographical sketch than a biography given the skimpy and often conflicting nature of so many of the sources for such a study, is even so the first such study Alaric has received in many years - perhaps his first ever in English. This alone would make it important, but through a pleasing combination of scholarship and storytelling, Douglas Boin has also made it enjoyable.
This book is highly worth reading, among other things, for intriguing detail about ancient life, not just in the 'Eternal City' itself but in Athens to which wealthy Romans escaped and sent their children to be educated .