Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Fire and Sword in Asia and Greece

There was a terrible outcry amongst the Romans when it became known that the emperor Gallus had agreed to bribe the Goths to keep the peace. Everybody said that Gallus was a traitor, and some people even accused him of having intentionally caused the ruin of Decius by his bad advice. To make matters worse, a great plague broke out all over the empire, caused, the Romans fancied, by the anger of the gods at the treachery of their emperor. And before long it turned out that the disgraceful bargain that Gallus had made had not even answered its purpose, for a portion of the Goths, faithless to their engagements, continued to ravage the provinces of Elyria. They were defeated by a general named Aemilianus, who assumed the title of emperor. Gallus was murdered by his own soldiers, who joined the army of the usurper; but soon afterwards he, too, was assassinated, and the empire came into the hands of Valerian and his son Gallienus.

The reigns of these two emperors, which extended from the year 253 to the year 268, were full of misfortunes for the empire. The Germans threatened it on the west; on the cast there were troubles with Persia; and all the while news kept coming from the provinces that one portion or another of the army had rebelled, and set up an emperor of their own. To grapple with these difficulties needed a great ruler at the head of affairs. Valerian was a brave and good man, but he foolishly went on an expedition against Persia, and in the year 26o was taken prisoner, and never came back. When Gallienus heard that his father was a captive, he took the matter very coolly, and his courtiers, instead of being disgusted with his heartlessness, only complimented him on his resignation." He was not a coward, nor was he either cruel or vicious; but he cared for nothing but amusing himself. When he heard of any great misfortune that had happened in some distant province, he used to make some foolish joke about it, and then went on writing pretty verses, or completing his collections of pictures and statues. Such was the sovereign who ruled the Roman world at a time when, more than ever in its past history, the manifold perils that threatened it demanded the energies of a hero and a statesman.

During these dreary fifteen years the history of the Goths is a frightful story of cruel massacres, and of the destruction and plunder of wealthy and beautiful cities. One branch of the people obtained possession of the Crimea, sailed across the Black Sea, and took the great city of Trebizond, from which they carried away an abundance of spoil and a vast multitude of captives. A second expedition resulted in the capture of the splendid cities of Chalcedon and Nicomedia, and many other rich towns of Bithynia. The cities were strongly fortified, and possessed ample garrisons; but such was the wild terror inspired by the Goths that resistance was hardly ever attempted. It is, however, the third of these plundering raids that is most worthy of attention, not only because it was conducted on a larger scale than the two previous ones, but because of the interest which we feel in the classic lands over which it extended. A fleet of five hundred vessels, conveying a great army of Goths and Herules, sailed through the Bosphorus and the Hellespont. On their way they destroyed the island city of Cyzicus, and made landings at many points on the west coast of Asia Minor. Amongst other deeds of wanton devastation, they burnt the magnificent temple of "Diana of the Ephesians," one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with its hundred lofty marble columns and its many beautiful statues, the work of the greatest sculptors of Greece. Then, crossing the Aegean Sea, they anchored in the port of Athens; and now that city, which had given birth to the finest poetry, philosophy, and art that the world had ever known, became the plunder of barbarian pirates.

Whatever havoc the Goths may have made at Athens, at least they did not burn the city, and we know that they left many noble buildings and works of art to be destroyed long after by the Turks. About their doings here we have only one anecdote. The Goths, it is said, had collected into a great heap all the Athenian libraries, and were going to set fire to the pile, dreading, perhaps, lest the magical powers dwelling in the foreign "runes" should work some mischief on the invading host. But there was among them one aged chief, famed for his wisdom, who persuaded them to change their purpose. "Let the Greeks have their books," he said, "for so long as they spend their days with these idle toys we need never fear that they will give us trouble in war." Although this story rests on no very good authority, there is no reason why it may not have been true, Perhaps the Goth was not altogether wrong. A people that has a vigorous national life gains fresh strength from the labours of its scholars and thinkers; but when a nation cares for nothing but books, its absorption in literature only hastens its decay, and the literature itself becomes pedantic and trifling, and gives birth to little "that the world would not willingly let die." So it was amongst the Greeks of the third century. But even while they were in Athens the Goths were taught that learning did not always make men cowards. For an Athenian named Dexippus, a man of letters whose studies had made him mindful of the ancient greatness of his country, collected a band of brave men and burned many of the Gothic ships in the harbour of Piraeus.

But there were not many Greeks like Dexippus, and the Goths and Herules met with little resistance as they ranged over the land, enriching themselves with the spoils of many a wealthy city, once great in arts and in war. When they had exhausted the plunder of Greece they marched to the Adriatic, and it seems they were thinking of invading Italy. But the emperor Gallienus, at last roused from his in action, came to meet them at the head of his army. The barbarian chiefs began to quarrel amongst themselves, and one of them, Naulobatus, with a large body of Herules, deserted his countrymen, and entered the Roman service. Naulobatus was gladly received by the emperor, who bestowed on him the rank of consul, the highest honour that could be gained by a Roman subject. The main body of the Goths separated into two bands. One of them went back to the east coast of Greece, and there took shipping, and after landing at Anchialus in Thrace, got back in safety to the settlements of their people at the north of the Black Sea. The other band made their way into Moesia, and continued to ravage that country for a year with impunity, because the quarrels between the Roman generals rendered any effectual resistance impossible.

One of these generals, however, was a brave and able man named Claudius, and when, in March, 268, Gallienus died by an assassin's hand, Claudius was declared emperor in his stead. He at once set to work to reorganize the Roman armies, and to clear the empire of the northern barbarians. His task seemed, indeed, a desperate one, for he had to grapple with a new invasion, more terrible than any that the empire had hitherto suffered. The Goths dwelling near the mouths of the Dniester, excited by the tales which their countrymen had brought them about the wealth and fruitfulness of the southern lands, had resolved to conquer the Roman Empire, and make it their settled home. They were joined by a multitude of Slavonic tribes, whom they had either subdued or had persuaded to enter into alliance with them. Through the Black Sea and the Hellespont sailed a vast fleet, conveying an army numbering three hundred thousand warriors, accompanied by their wives and children. The invaders landed at Thessalonica, and hearing of the approach of Claudius, hastened to meet him, glorying in the hope of an easy victory. The battle that took place at Naissus (now Nissa, in the middle of Turkey) was, perhaps, not a victory for Claudius; some writers say he was beaten. But the Goths lost fifty thousand men; and what was more, they lost their confidence in their own strength. Battle after battle succeeded, and soon the mighty host of the invaders was utterly broken. Thousands of Gothic prisoners were sold into slavery; many of the young men were taken to serve in the imperial armies; and the shattered remnant of the people fled into the recesses of the Balkan mountains, where their numbers were lessened by the cold of winter and the outbreak of a dreadful plague. In this plague, however, Claudius himself died, in the spring of the year 270. In memory of his victories the Roman people gave him the surname of Gothicus; and his name ought ever to be held in honour as that of one of the few great conquerors whose exploits have been of lasting benefit to the human race. It is terrible to think what would have been the consequences to the world if the Gothic enterprise had then been successful. The South of Europe would have been depopulated by fierce and lawless massacre; the masterpieces of ancient art and literature would have perished, and the traditions of many ages of civilization would in a great measure have been blotted out. It is true that by the victories of Claudius the triumph of the Goths was only deferred. But it was deferred until a time when they had become Christian, and in some degree civilized, and when they had learned to use their victories with gentleness and wisdom. When they came to subdue the empire, it was no longer as savage devastators, but as the saviours of the Roman world from the degradation into which it had sunk through the vices of a corrupt civilization, and through the misgovernment of its feeble and depraved rulers. Although a foreign conquest always must be productive of some evil, yet, on the whole, the Gothic rule in Italy, while it lasted, was such a blessing to the subject people that we may well feel sorry that it came to an untimely end.

The dying emperor recommended as his successor Aurelian, one of his generals, whom the soldiers who served under him knew by the nickname of "Your hands to your swords!" The army accepted the choice, and Aurelian ruled the empire well and wisely for five years. As soon as the new emperor had been proclaimed the Goths again tried their fortune in war, under a chief named Cannabaudes. The battle was indecisive, and the Roman losses were heavy, but the Goths had suffered so much that they were glad to accept an offer of peace. Aurelian, hearing that he was wanted to repel a German invasion of Italy, thought it wise to allow them favourable terms. It was agreed that they were to be granted a free retreat into Dacia, and that province, including what is now the kingdom of Roumania and the eastern part of Hungary was abandoned to their sovereignty, the native inhabitants being invited to cross the Danube into Moesia. In return for these concessions the Goths were to furnish a body of two thousand horsemen to the Roman armies, and as security for their faithfulness a number of the sons and daughters of Gothic nobles were entrusted to the care of the emperor, who caused them to receive the education of persons of rank, and afterwards employed the youths in honourable offices in his own service, and gave the maidens in marriage to some of his principal officers. The result of these measures was that the Goths lived in unbroken alliance with the Roman Empire for fifty years, learning the arts of peace from the natives of Dacia, and gaining new strength for the time when they were again to distinguish themselves by deeds of arms.