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Douglas Boin Wants To 'Think Differently About Marginalized People' In New Book On Ancient Rome


And now we're going to go back - way back - to a period which might have some resonance for today - the fall of the Roman Empire. At the time, writes historian Douglas Boin, Rome had expanded, incorporating many different peoples. It was multiracial and multiethnic. Sophisticated citizens lived in dense metropolises where the rich spent lavishly, one politician even spending 2,000 pounds of gold to celebrate his son's election. But foreigners were called barbarians, and immigrants were excluded from civic life - all this right before a catastrophe - the sack of Rome orchestrated by one man.

Douglas Boin joins us now. His book is called "Alaric The Goth: An Outsider's History Of The Fall Of Rome."


DOUGLAS BOIN: Lulu, thank you for the invitation. This is great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us about the Rome of this era. You call it a, quote, "combustible mix of xenophobia and cultural supremacy."

BOIN: I think the Rome of this era is really best captured at the racetrack. And there's a very famous and very disturbing passage in one of the writers from this time that talks about people really getting excited going to see their favorite horses. They would queue up in line for days to go. But as soon as their team lost, the entire stadium turned against foreigners.

And the story that's being told for us has a little bit of a moral to it. The writer says, you know, these Romans never really put two and two together that their entire lives were dependent upon the fortune and the efforts of these foreigners in their everyday lives. And for me, that was - that encapsulates everything that you need to know about later Rome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Alaric grew up and appeared where the Goths became refugees, and children were forcibly separated from their parents. I have to say it almost felt a little bit too on the nose.

BOIN: This isn't a book that I needed readers to make those comparisons between then and today, although they could if they want to. For me, when I read and encountered that evidence, that part of Alaric's story, it was just too devastating to be a child separated from one's parents or one's siblings.

That was really, I think, what led me to try to do his story right, which is the Goths suffered incredible discrimination when they had to leave their home. The violence directed against them was something they lived with for, in Alaric's case, 40 years of his life. And I really just wanted to make sure that readers were introduced to that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when Alaric joined the Roman army, usually, that would be a way to get status, of course, but ultimately citizenship. And yet, he was still facing a lot of discrimination. You quote one Christian bishop who called the Goths an animalistic race, and the government should admit no fellowship with these foreigners. How did that shape him?

BOIN: I was just taken back, almost breathless, by the extent to which the sources are hostile to Alaric and the Goths and to any foreigner who would succeed in later Rome. People were compared to animals. People were compared to pestilence. There was a kind of sense that if you succeeded as an outsider, then it was somehow acquired by luck and not by talent.

And I think even though Alaric remains very opaque in the sources - I mean, he's not even on the cover of the book because we don't really know what he looked like - there are still these moments of intense conflict where you can see the hopes that he probably once had as a soldier are taken away from him in a way that turns him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The defining sort of moment of his life - or at least the way we understand him, of course - was the sack of Rome. And you posit he was motivated in part by all these slights that he had experienced.

BOIN: I think everyone has a tipping point. I think everyone has that line in their moral fabric, in their sense of justice, their sense of what is right and wrong. For Alaric, I think it was about that sense of, I have tried my hardest to play the good Goth, as it were. And there's no reward. There's no reward.

Citizenship had been given out three times, at least, conservatively in Roman history prior to this point. But for him and the foreigners of the later Roman Empire, it is a topic of conversation that the elite and the politicians will never, ever tolerate having. And that, I think, goes a long way in explaining his actions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does the sack of Rome then fit into the fall of the Roman Empire?

BOIN: There is something powerful in August 24, 410 A.D. There were interviews and people recording - at the time, written down in Latin - who said, you know, if you stepped back into Rome after those three days of riots, the Romans looked like they'd picked up the pieces. The Romans looked like they were ready to get their lives back together again.

But the kind of more profound historical change that we know happens is that two generations, 2 1/2 generations later, the entire constitutional framework of the empire just fractures and falls apart. And it's because, I think, when confronted with an urgent need to change direction, the Roman Empire chose not to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My last question is, as a historian, famously, we always know that history is written by the victors. Why go into what it might have looked like for a character that history has deemed a villain?

BOIN: I'm kind of jealous of fiction writers. If you think about just the idea of telling the "Odyssey" from a woman's perspective, there are real benefits to flipping the script, to turning the tables and empathizing. And I think history needs to do more of that. It needs to borrow more of that instinct. I think history can still surprise us. If you're exhausted or you're bored by history, you're doing it wrong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Historian Douglas Boin from Saint Louis University. His book is "Alaric The Goth: An Outsider's History Of The Fall Of Rome."

Thank you so much.

BOIN: Thank you, Lulu, for the invitation. This has been great.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN METCALFE'S "PARSAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.