Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

From the Baltic to the Danube

The emigration of a settled people from the country which it has occupied for hundreds of years, is a very different sort of thing from the movements of mere wandering hordes like the Huns or the Tartars. It is true the Goths were only barbarians, and the ties which bound them to their native soil were far less complex and powerful than those which affect a civilized community; and no doubt they had often made long expeditions for plunder or conquest into the adjoining lands. But still we may be sure that the resolution to forsake their ancient homes, and to seek a settlement in unknown and distant regions, must have cost them a great deal of anxious deliberation, and that they must have been impelled to it by very powerful motives. What these motives we we can only faintly guess. It can scarcely be supposed that the Goths were driven southward by the invasion of stronger neighbours, for the peoples who afterwards occupied the Baltic shores seem to have been certainly their inferiors in warlike prowess. Most likely it was simply the natural increase of their population, aided perhaps by the failure of their harvests or the outbreak of a pestilence, that made them sensible of the poverty of their country, and led them to cast longing eyes towards the richer and more genial lands further to the south, of which they had heard, and which some of them may have visited.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Our only information about the path along which they travelled is derived from their own traditions, as recorded by Jordanes in the sixth century. A great deal of the story told by that historian, however, seems to be either his own guesswork, or to be taken from the history of the Getes and Scythians. Putting all this aside, we find that the Goths, Gepids, Herules, and some other kindred peoples, united into one great body, first wandered southward through what is now Western Russia, till they came to the shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and then spread themselves westward to the north bank of the Danube. As they went their numbers were increased by the accession of people of Slavonic race, whom they conquered, or who joined them of their own accord. One of the nations whom they overcame, the Spali, is mentioned by name. About these early wanderings Jordanes tells two legendary stories, evidently derived from Gothic popular ballads. One of these relates that the Goths, led by their king, Filimer, the son of Guntharic, had to cross a great river into a beautiful and fertile country, called Ovim or Ocum. When the king and most of the people had passed over in safety, the bridge broke down and part of the host was left behind in a sort of enchanted land, surrounded by a belt of marshes through which no traveller had since been able to find his way; but those who passed near its borders ages afterward could often hear the lowing of cattle and the distant sound of Gothic speech. The other story embodies the hatred felt by the Goths for their enemies the Huns. King Filimer, it was said, expelled from the camp the women who practised magic arts the Halirunos, as they were called, that is to say, the possessors of the "rune" or secret of Halya, the goddess of the lower world. Banished into the deserts, these women met with the evil spirits of the waste, and from the unholy marriage of witches and demons sprang the loathsome savages whom the Goths had afterwards so much reason to dread.

The real history of the Goths begins about the year 245, when they were living near the mouths of the Danube under the rule of Ostrogotha [Austraguta], the first king of the Amaling stock. Ostrogotha was celebrated in tradition for his "patience"; but in what way he displayed that virtue we are not informed, for history tells only of his victories. Whether on account of his patience or his deeds in war, his fame was widely spread, for one of the oldest of Anglo-Saxon poems mentions him as "Eastgota, the father of Unwen." The name of this son is given by Jordanes as Hunuil, but probably the Anglo-Saxon form is the right one.

There is evidence that about twenty years before this time the Goths had become allies of the Romans, who paid them a yearly sum of money to defend the border of the empire against the Sarmatian barbarians who lay behind them. But in the reign of the Roman emperor Philip the Arab, this payment was stopped, and King Ostrogotha crossed the Danube and plundered the Roman provinces of Moesia and Thrace. The Roman general Decius, who afterwards became emperor brought an army against them; but the Goths retreated safely across the Danube, and it is said that large numbers of the Roman soldiers deserted to the barbarians, and offered to help them to make another attack. The Gothic king collected an army of thirty thousand men, partly belonging to his own people and partly to other barbarian nations, and sent them over the river under the command of two generals, named Argait and Guntharic, who ravaged the province called Lower Moesia, and laid siege to its capital, a city which the great emperor Trajan had built, and named Marcianopolis in honour of his sister Marcia. The inhabitants were glad to bargain with the Goths to raise the siege on receiving a heavy payment in money, and then the barbarians went back into their own land.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


After this the kingdom of Ostrogotha Was attacked by the Gepids, who had separated themselves from the Goths, and under their king, Fastida, had conquered the Burgunds, another Teutonic people. They now demanded that Ostrogotha should give them a portion of his territory. The "patient" king tried hard to persuade them not to make war on their own brethren; but he was not patient enough to grant what they required, and the two nations met in conflict near a town called Galtis. The fight was long and terrible; "but at last," says Jordanes, sneering at the "sluggish Gepids," the more vigorous nature of the Goths prevailed," and Fastida had to retire within his own dominions.

Ostrogotha died about the year 250, and was succeeded, not by his son Unw6n or Hunuil (who, however, became the ancestor of later Gothic kings), but by a King Cniva, who was not an Amaling at all. The new chief at once engaged in an expedition across the Danube into Moesia and Thrace. He sent out several bodies of his army to plunder different parts of the country, while he himself besieged the town of Nicopolis (now Nikopi on the Yantra), whose name, "City of Victory," preserved the memory of a battle in which Trajan had been successful against the barbarians. The emperor Decius, who had been elected by the army a year before, was a man of great energy and of noble character, and he at once hurried off to relieve the town. When the Goths heard that the Roman army was approaching, they abandoned the siege, and made their way through the passes of the Balkan mountains to attack the great city of Philippopolis. Decius followed them in haste, but the Goths unexpectedly turned on their pursuers, put them to flight, and plundered their camp. The barbarians were now able to carry on the siege of Philippopolis undisturbed. The inhabitants made a brave defence, and slew many thousands of their assailants. But at last they were obliged to yield; the town was taken, and it is said that a hundred thousand persons were massacred. A vast quantity of plunder fell into the hands of the Goths, besides many prisoners of noble rank. Amongst these was Priscus, a brother of the late emperor Philip, whom the Goths persuaded to assume the title of emperor, and to conclude a treaty of peace with them.

Meanwhile the emperor had not been idle. He rallied his scattered forces, and placed garrisons along the Danube and at the passes of the Balkans. The Goths felt how much they had been weakened by their losses in the long siege, and sent messages to the Romans, entreating that they might be allowed to return home in safety on giving up their plunder and their prisoners. But Decius thought he had the victory in his own hands, and demanded that they should submit without conditions. The Goths determined to fight for their freedom. The two armies encountered each other near a little town of Moesia, which the barbarians called Abritta, and the Romans, Forum Trebonii. Scarcely had the battle begun when Decius's eldest son, Herennius, whom he had made joint emperor, fell wounded by an arrow. A crowd of barbarians rushed upon him, and plunged their spears into his body. When the soldiers saw their young commander slain, their courage at first gave way. The bereaved father urged them on with the words: "The loss of one soldier makes little difference to the commonwealth." Then, overwhelmed with grief, he rushed into the thick of the conflict, resolved either to avenge his son or to share his fate. The fight was fierce and bloody. Two divisions of the Goths were routed; the third line, protected by a morass, awaited the attack of the Romans, who, unacquainted with the ground and burdened with their heavy armour, were utterly defeated. The emperor was killed, and his body was never found. Never before had the Roman Empire known so sad a day as this, which saw the ruin of a great army, and the death by barbarian hands of one of the worthiest emperors who ever ruled.

Broken and disorganized, the Roman army offered no further resistance to the Goths, who carried devastation over the provinces of Moesia, Thrace, and Illyria. The new emperor, Trebonianus Gallus, found that it was hopeless to try to drive them out by force of arms, and he agreed to leave them in possession of their prisoners and their booty, and to pay them a large sum of money yearly on condition that they should leave the Roman territories unmolested.