Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Gothic Alexander

We come now to a reign which marks a great epoch in the history of the Gothic people. Ermanaric, who seems to have been chosen king about the year 350, was a great warrior, like many of his predecessors; but his policy, and the objects for which he fought, were markedly different from theirs. The former kings of the Goths had been content to conduct expeditions for the sake of plunder into the territories of neighbouring nations, or to lead their subjects in search of new homes in other lands. But the Gothic people had now once more acquired a settled territory; and bitter experience had compelled them to renounce the hope of conquests in the more genial and wealthy countries of the south. These new conditions gave a new direction to their warlike ambition. Ermanaric made no attempt to invade the provinces of the Roman Empire; but he resolved to make his Ostrogothic kingdom the centre of a great empire of his own. The seat of his kingdom was, as tradition tells us, on the banks of the Dnieper. We have a long list of the peoples whom he subjected to his sway; but the names have been so blundered by the copyists that it is useless to repeat them here. We can however form some notion of the vast extent of his empire from the fact that amongst the nations he subdued were the Esthonians, living far away on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. Another of the peoples whom he conquered was the Herules, who, as we have already seen, had once formed one nation with the Goths, but had before this time made themselves independent, and were living under the rule of a king called Alaric—a name which a generation later became famous as that of the great hero of the Visigoths. A Roman historian compares Ermanaric to Alexander the Great; and many ages afterwards his fame survived in the poetic traditions of Germans, Norsemen, and Anglo-Saxons. These traditions are more fabulous than historical; they bring together as contemporaries persons whom we know to have lived at periods a hundred years apart; but we can gather from them that while Ermanaric was feared and admired as a great conqueror and an able ruler, he was bitterly hated as a cruel and selfish tyrant.

Ermanaric was the first king since, Ostrogotha who belonged to the Amaling family. Down to this time, the Gothic kings seem to have been chosen by free election from any of the noble families, and we have no proof that a son ever succeeded his father. But henceforward the kingship of the Ostrogoths became hereditary among the descendants of Ermanaric.

During this time the Visigoths appear to have been practically independent, divided into separate tribes ruled by their own "judges" or chieftains; but, while these chieftains seem to have been free to make war and peace on their own account, it is probable that in theory they acknowledged the supremacy of the Ostrogothic king.

But the great empire of Ermanaric, which, like that of Napoleon, had been created by conquest in one lifetime, was doomed, like Napoleon's, to an inglorious end, For in the king's old age there appeared upon the scene a new enemy, with whom he was unable to contend. The Tartar people of the Huns had forsaken their ancient camping grounds in Asia, and in overwhelming numbers poured westward over the plains of Russia. Nation after nation was subdued as they advanced, and compelled to join the devastating horde. Their approach inspired amongst the subjects of Ermanaric a wild panic, which was caused, not merely by their vast multitude, and by the fame of their unresisted career of conquest, but by the superstitious horror which their strange and terrible appearance excited. Dwarfish, and, as it seemed, deformed in figure, but of enormous strength, their swarthy and beardless faces of frightful ugliness (" with dots instead of eyes," says Jordanes), and rendered still more hideous by tattooing, it is no wonder that they were regarded by the Goths rather as demons than as men. A Roman writer compares their aspect to that of the roughly hewn caricatures of human faces which were carved on the parapets of bridges. The aged king of the Goths tried to urge his people to resistance, but they were paralysed by terror, and the subject tribes gladly hailed the invasion as an opportunity to throw off the yoke of the detested tyrant. When Ermanaric saw that his empire was falling to pieces, he is said to have taken his own life in his despair. This seems to be the true story of his end; but the account given by Jordanes does not mention the suicide, and mixes up the history with a romantic legend, which appears in many differing forms in German and Scandinavian traditions. According to one of the later versions of this legend, the tyrant had sent his son to woo for him the beautiful Swanhilda, the daughter of a queen named Gudrun. But the son, prompted by an evil counsellor, won the maiden for his own bride. Ermanaric, "the furious traitor," as an Anglo-Saxon poet calls him, cunningly disguising his anger, enticed Swanhilda by fair words into his own power, and then in his fierce revenge ordered her to be torn in pieces by wild horses. Her brothers (named Sorli and Hamdhir in Norse story, Sarus and Ammius according to Jordanes) attacked Ermanaric, and cut off his hands and feet, leaving him to linger in misery and helplessness until his hundred and tenth year.

Ermanaric died in the year 375, and the Ostrogoths were subdued by the Hunnish king Balamber. For a whole century they remained subject to the Huns, even fighting on the side of their masters against their own kinsmen the Visigoths. Of the history of the Ostrogoths during this time of humiliation there is not much to tell. They did not submit to the savage invaders quite without a struggle. One large body of them, led by two generals, Alatheus [Alhthius] and Safrax, taking with them a boy of Amaling descent named Wideric, whom they chose as their king, emigrated westward soon after Ermanaric's death, and joined the army of the Visigoths, where we shall hear of them again. A few years later, one portion of the Ostrogoths who were left behind, chose a king named Winithari [Winithaharyis], a grandson of Ermanaric's brother, and tried to throw off the Hunnish yoke. While the Huns were busy with new conquests, Winithari overran the country of the Ante, a Slavonic people whom the Huns had made tributary; and the Gothic historian confesses without shame that his countrymen crucified the king of the Ant m and seventy of his nobles. But the rest of the Ostrogoths, under Hunimund, the son of Ermanaric, continued to be subject to the Huns, and joined the army of Balamber to crush the revolt of their countrymen. In two battles Winithari was victorious, but in the third he was defeated and killed. Balamber married an Amaling princess named Waladamarca, and the Ostrogoths submitted quietly to his sway. They were allowed, however, to choose their own kings, who assisted the Huns in their conquests. Hunimund, famed for his beauty, won victories over the German nation of the Sueves. His son Thorismund conquered the Gepids, and was killed "in the flower of his youth," by a fall from his horse.

We are told that the Ostrogoths were so stricken with grief for the death of their young hero that they chose no other king for forty years. Of course we cannot believe this ridiculous tale, which seems to have been taken from the Gothic ballads. The plain prose account of the matter would probably be, that the Ostrogoths were unable to choose a king who was approved of by their Hunnish masters, so that the latter kept the government in their own hands. The young prince Berismund, whose right it was to succeed his father Thorismund, was naturally discontented at being excluded from the throne, and went away to join the Visigoths, who were then settled in Gaul. It seems he thought that the Visigoths would make him their king; but he found that the throne was already occupied, and he kept his Amaling descent a secret. The king of the Visigoths received him kindly, and promoted him to high rank on account of his bravery; but during his lifetime it was never known who he was.

When the forty years were ended about the year 44o the Huns once more allowed the Ostrogoths to have a king of their own. His name was Walamer, and he was the son of Wandalhari, and the grandson of King Winithari. He had two brothers, Theudemer and Widumer, to whom he entrusted the care of portions of his kingdom, and who succeeded him when he died. The unity and the mutual affection of these three brothers are described by Jordanes, in almost poetical words, as having been something singularly beautiful. During the greater part of Walamer's life, the three brothers were faithful servants of the Huns, and their subjects fought, against their own kin, in the armies of Attila. But, when Attila died in 453, his sons quarreled for supremacy, and the Ostrogoths regained their freedom. The Huns made an effort to reconquer them, but were defeated by Walamer in a decisive battle. On the day when the news was brought to Theudemer of his brother's triumph, a son was born to him. This "child of victory" was the great Theoderic [Thiudareiks], who was destined to fulfill the omen of his birth, and to raise the Ostrogothic nation to the highest position among the people of the Teutonic stock. The name of Theoderic is the most glorious in Gothic history; but before we begin his story we must turn back a hundred years, and inquire what the Visigoths had been doing while their eastern brethren were the humble vassals of a horde of Asiatic savages.