Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

King Atawulf and His Roman Queen

We must here for a moment interrupt our narrative to glance at certain events that had been taking place in the eastern empire while Alaric was fighting in Greece and Italy. The colony of Ostrogoths, whom Theodosius had planted in Asia Minor had, in the year 399, rebelled under a leader named Tribigild; the imperial general Gaina, himself a Goth, who was sent to subdue the rebels, ended by joining them, and becoming their chief. He crossed with his followers into Thrace, and excited great alarm at Constantinople, but was finally defeated, in the beginning of 401, by the king of the Huns, who sent the head of Gaina to the emperor as a sign of his friendly intentions. But all this has little bearing on the general history of the Goths, and after this brief digression we may continue the story of Alaric's followers, whom we left lamenting the loss of their beloved king, beside the river which flowed over his grave.

The new king whom the people chose in Alaric's place was Atawulf, Alaric's wife's brother, who has been mentioned in a preceding chapter. He made no attempt to carry out Alaric's purpose of invading Africa, and he does not seem to have had any clearly defined plans of his own, for he spent two years in moving his army from the south of Italy to the northwest. It is said that a few years later he confessed that he had once had the intention to overthrow the Roman Empire and establish a Gothic Empire in its place, but that he had become convinced that the Goths were too rude and lawless to be capable of ruling the world, and so since then it had been his aim to do all he could to strengthen the Roman power. But this change in his views must have taken place before Alaric's death, for it is quite plain that he did not try to conquer Italy. Instead of that, he endeavoured to persuade the emperor to receive him as an ally. He had in his hands one argument which he thought would be powerful in inducing Honorius to consent to his demands. The emperor's favourite sister, Galla Placidia, was a prisoner in his camp, having been captured when the Goths had possession of Rome; and Atawulf offered to send her home if Honorius would make such a treaty as he wanted. But probably the terms he asked were too hard, and the great general Constantius, who now ruled over the weak emperor, refused to consent to them. It is thought, however, that when Atawulf, in the beginning of the year 412, left Italy, he had got a commission from Honorius to go and fight with Jovinus, who had made himself emperor in Gaul.

But when the Visigoths had entered Gaul Atawulf allowed Attalus to persuade him that he had better try to make a friendly arrangement with Jovinus to divide the country with him. But Jovinus would not listen to the proposal, and so Atawulf returned to his original plan. The Goth Sarus, who was Atawulf's bitter enemy, had rebelled against Honorius, and was on his way to Gaul to support the usurper. Atawulf attacked him, and gained a complete victory, in which Sarus was killed.

Honorius now agreed to a treaty, which provided that Atawulf should receive a supply of corn for his army, and in return should set Placidia free, and send the heads of Jovinus and his brother Sebastian to the emperor at Ravenna. The latter part of the bargain was fulfilled by Atawulf, but the corn did not come, and he said he would keep Placidia until it was received. He went on fighting for his own hand against both the imperial forces and the remnants of the rebel army, and before the end of 413 was master of most of Southern Gaul, including the cities of Valence, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Narbonne.

In Narbonne it was that he took up his abode, and there, in January, 414, the princess Placidia became his wife. The wedding was celebrated in the house of one of the wealthiest citizens of Narbonne, and Atawulf took care that it should be conducted in every respect according to Roman customs. The bridegroom was attired in Roman dress, and at the banquet he took the second seat, giving the place of honour to the princess. The presents to the bride included a hundred bowls filled with precious stones and gold pieces, which were laid before her by fifty noble youths dressed in splendid silken robes. The wedding chorus an essential part of the Roman marriage ceremony among people of rank was led by Attalus, who was famous for his skill in music.

Some of the Romans who heard of this marriage thought it was the event that was referred to in the words of the prophet Daniel: "The king's daughter of the south shall come to the king of the north to make an agreement; but she shall not retain the power of her arm, neither shall he stand, nor his arm, but she shall be given up." The rest of the verse could not well have been made to suit the occasion, but the prophecy, as far as this quotation goes, was admirably fulfilled in the events which followed.

No doubt Atawulf thought that the Romans of Gaul, who he knew would never own a Gothic king as their emperor, might be persuaded to submit to the rule of a daughter of Theodosius; and perhaps he thought also that Honorius would now himself be willing to acknowledge him, if not as sovereign of Gaul, at any rate as his own substitute and commander-in-chief there.

But he found himself mistaken. The Romans only thought that Placidia had disgraced herself by marrying a barbarian; and as for Honorius, he was still ruled by Constantius, whom this marriage made all the more bitter against Atawulf, for he had wanted Placidia to become his own wife.

As a last resort Atawulf caused poor Attalus to be proclaimed emperor once more. But Constantius came with a powerful army, and as the Roman fleets had cut off the supply of corn from the Gaulish ports, the Goths were in danger of being starved out. When Constantius advanced they fled from Narbonne, and after plundering the cities and country of the south of Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. The unfortunate Attalus was left to shift for himself. He tried to escape by sea, but was captured by the Roman fleet, and was sent to Ravenna. His life was spared, but two of his fingers were cut off, and he was banished to one of the Lipari islands, where he ended his days.

Soon after arriving in Spain Atawulf captured Barcelona from the Vandals, and made that city his royal residence. Here a son was born to him, who received the name of Theodosius, and who, his parents hoped, would someday wear the diadem of his illustrious grandfather. But the child soon died, and was buried with great pomp in a coffin of solid silver.

In August, 415, Atawulf was murdered in his palace by Eberwulf, a former follower of Sarus, whom he had taken into his own service. Eberwulf, perhaps, meant treachery from the beginning, but Atawulf had irritated him by ridiculing his small stature. With his last breath the king charged his brother to make peace with the empire, and to send Placidia home to Ravenna.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


But the brother who received this counsel was not allowed to succeed to the throne. The people blamed Atawulf for favouring the Romans too much, and they chose as their king a brother of Sarus, named Sigeric. His first act was to murder the six children of Atawulf's former wife, and he treated Placidia with the most shameful cruelty, making her walk twelve miles by the side of his horse. But in seven days he too was assassinated, and Wallia [Walya], a Balthing, though not related to Atawulf, was chosen in his stead.

Wallia treated Placidia kindly, but began by acting as the enemy of the Romans. Fighting both against the imperial forces and the Vandals and Sueves, he soon conquered the whole of Spain. But he was reduced to straits by a great famine, and like Alaric in a similar position, he made an attempt to cross over into Africa, to make the corn supplies of that province his own. Just as in Alaric's case, the attempt failed through storms, and Wallia had no other resource than to make his peace with the Romans. Honorius, or rather Constantius, was glad to accept his offer to send Placidia home, on condition of receiving 600,00o bushels of wheat, and being allowed to conquer Spain under the authority of the empire.

What became of Atawulf s widowed queen is not exactly part of the story of the Goths, but you may like to know how her strange history ended. When she got back to Ravenna she was compelled to marry Constantius, whom she disliked. Her husband was afterwards made joint emperor with Honorius, but only lived to possess the throne for seven months. As Honorius died childless in 423, he was succeeded by the infant son of Constantius and Placidia, Valentinian III., in whose name the empire was governed by the empress-mother until her death in 450. Among the famous monuments of Ravenna is the mausoleum which covers the remains of Placidia, together with those of Honorius, Constantius, and Valentinian.