Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Frithigern and Valens—the Battle of Hadrianople

At the end of our sixth chapter, we left Frithigern and his Visigoths on the north bank of the Danube, in continual dread of an attack from the Huns, and eagerly awaiting the reply of the emperor Valens to their request for permission to cross the river and become subjects of the Roman Empire. Valens was in Asia (probably at Antioch) where the ambassadors of Frithigern presented themselves before him. They told him of the terrible danger to which their countrymen were exposed, and promised that if they were granted a home in Thrace the Visigoths would become his faithful and obedient subjects. The answer, yes or no, had to be given at once: there was no time for hesitation. To do the advisers of Valens justice, it was not altogether "with a light heart" that they came to the decision which well-nigh involved the empire in irretrievable ruin. Some of them, at any rate, clearly perceived the danger that there was in admitting such a vast and unruly multitude into the Roman territories. Others, however, urged that the empire was in need of men; its population had for a long time past been growing smaller; and here was a golden opportunity of adding at one stroke a million of subjects to the dominions of their sovereign. After much anxious discussion, the prayer of the Visigoths was granted. Possibly the experiment might not have turned out so badly if the Goths, when they had been admitted into the empire, had been treated with generosity and confidence. But first to accept them as subjects, and then to let them be goaded into rebellion by every sort of oppression and insult, was a course that could only end in the most frightful calamity.

Orders were sent to the Roman governors on the banks of the Danube to make preparations for bringing the Visigoths across the river, and when a sufficient number of boats had been collected, the great immigration began. Day after day, from early morning till far into the night, the broad river was covered with passing vessels, into which the Goths had crowded so eagerly that many of them sank on the passage, and all on board were lost. At first the Romans tried to count the people as they landed, but the numbers were so vast that the attempt had to be given up in despair.

If the Goths at first felt any thankfulness to the Romans for giving them a safe refuge from their savage enemies, their gratitude was soon turned into fierce anger when they got to know that their children were to be taken from them, and sent away into distant parts of the empire. The reason for this cruel action was that the Romans thought the Goths would keep quiet when they knew that their children might be killed if a rebellion took place; but it only filled the minds of the barbarians with a wild longing for revenge. Valens thought he could make himself safe against his new subjects by ordering the fighting men to be deprived of their weapons; but the Goths, who were rich with the plunder they had taken in many wars, found that it was easy to bribe the Roman officers to let them keep their arms.

When Valens heard that the Visigoths, instead of being a defenceless multitude, were a powerful army, and that they showed signs of fierce discontent, he felt that he had made a great mistake. He tried to remedy the mischief by ordering that the Goths should be divided into several bodies, and removed to different parts of the empire. Just at this time those Ostrogoths who had not submitted to the Huns asked the emperor that they too might be allowed to cross the Danube and become Roman subjects. Of course the request was refused; but the Ostrogoths took no notice of the refusal, and finding an unguarded place, they passed the river, and joined themselves to the subjects of Frithigern.

When this vast multitude of strangers had been brought into the Roman provinces, it was needful to consider how they should be supplied with the necessaries of life. Valens had given orders that arrangements should be made to furnish the Goths, at reasonable prices, with the provisions they required, until they should be able to maintain themselves by agriculture and the rearing of cattle. But unfortunately the Roman governors of Thrace, Lupicinus and Maximus, were avaricious men, who saw in the distresses of the Goths a chance of making themselves rich by ill-gotten gains. These men kept the food supply in their own hands, and doled it out to the Goths at famine prices, forbidding everyone else to sell to them more cheaply. Pressed by hunger, the miserable people had to give a slave as the price of one loaf, or ten pounds of silver for an animal, and they were often compelled to feed on the flesh of dogs or of animals that had died of disease. Some of them even sold their own children, saying it was better to let them go into slavery to save their lives than to keep them where they would die of hunger.

During all these terrible hardships, Frithigern succeeded in keeping his followers from breaking out into revolt, and even from relieving their wants by plunder of their neighbours. He seems to have been really anxious to maintain friendship with the Romans if he could; and no doubt, also, he thought of the Gothic boys and girls who were kept as hostages in distant lands. But all the time he took care that the Goths should be ready to rise as one man, if the burden of oppression should become too heavy to be borne.

The occasion was not long in presenting itself. Lupicinus had invited Frithigern and the other chiefs to a banquet at Marcianopolis, and they were accompanied by a few attendants into the palace, the Gothic people being encamped outside the walls of the city. While the feast was going on, an uproar arose at the city gates between the Roman soldiers and the hungry Goths, who saw before them a market well supplied with food, which they were prevented from buying. Some of the soldiers were killed, and news of what had happened was brought secretly to Lupicinus, who, awakened out of a drunken sleep, gave orders for the slaughter of Frithigern's followers. Frithigern heard the outcry, and soon guessed what had happened. With rare presence of mind, he quietly said that it was needful for him to show himself to his countrymen in order to put a stop to the tumult; and beckoning to his companions, he boldly led the way through the streets and out at the city gates, while the Romans looked on, too much astonished to offer any opposition. When the chiefs reached the camp, they told their story to their countrymen, and announced that the peace with the Romans was at an end. The Goths broke into wild shouts of applause as they heard this longed-for declaration. "Better," they said, "to perish in battle than to suffer a lingering death by famine." Very soon the sound of the Gothic trumpets warned the garrison of Marcianopolis that they must prepare for war.

Lupicinus hastily collected such an army as he could, and went out to meet the foe; but the Romans were beaten, and their cowardly general fled for his life before the battle was decided, and took refuge in the city. And now the Goths made amends for their past privations by plundering the innocent country people of the Thracian provinces. They were joined by some Gothic regiments in the imperial service, who had been driven into rebellion by the foolish insolence of the Romans; and the slaves who worked in the Thracian gold-mines, set free by the flight of their cruel masters, were glad to serve the Goths as guides, and to show them where the stores of food and of treasure had been hidden.

We need not say very much about the events which immediately followed. There was one great battle at a place called The Willows," which was a victory for neither side, but resulting in terrible slaughter to both, so that long afterwards the field was white with the bones of the unburied dead; another great battle on the Hebrus, won by the Roman General Sebastian, who carried off a vast quantity of spoil, greater than could be stored in the city of Hadrianople or in the surrounding plains; and several less important conflicts, in which sometimes one side was victorious and sometimes the other. But in spite of all this fighting the Gothic army kept growing stronger and stronger, being joined continually by new bands—Taifals, Scythians, Ostrogoth deserters from the Huns, and even by some of the Hunnish hordes themselves.

In the summer of 378 Valens came back to Constantinople, and found himself the object of universal indignation. Whenever he appeared in public he was assailed by shouts of abuse for his folly in letting the Goths into the empire, and for his cowardice in not having marched in person to subdue them. Valens felt keenly that there was some truth in these reproaches. He knew that he had made a terrible mistake; and though he also knew that he had meant well, and that he was no coward, he had not the strength of mind to be indifferent to popular clamour. What added to the bitterness of his feeling was the knowledge that the people were making comparisons between himself and his nephew Gratian, the brave and accomplished young emperor of the West, who had been winning brilliant victories over the Germans on the Rhine and the Upper Danube. Valens resolved to risk everything in a desperate attempt to repair the consequences of his own error. He remained only a few days in the capital, and set out to take the command of the army, which was encamped under the walls of Hadrianople.

While the emperor and his generals were discussing their plans for the management of the war, there arrived at the camp one of Gratian's generals, named Richomer, who brought a letter saying that his master would soon be on the spot at the head of his army, and begging Valens on no account to risk a battle until Gratian had joined him. Well would it have been for Valens if he had listened to this advice; but his flatterers urged him not to let his nephew share in the glory of a victory which, they represented, he was sure to win; and he decided to hurry on his preparations so that the battle might be over before Gratian arrived.

The Romans had everything in readiness for the attack, when a Gothic Christian priest (some think it must have been the bishop Wulfila, but this is not very likely) accompanied by some other Goths of humble rank, presented themselves before Valens, bearing a letter from Frithigern, in which he offered to enter into a treaty of peace, on condition that the Goths should be recognized as masters of Thrace. In addition to this official despatch, which had no doubt been sent with the consent of the Gothic assembly, the priest had brought a private note from Frithigern, in which he informed Valens that he feared the Goths would not remain faithful to such a treaty if they got what they wanted too easily, and advised the emperor to make a display of force so that it might not appear that his concessions were the result of weakness. What the Gothic chief meant by these tactics it is not easy to see: the historian who tells this curious story intimates that the Romans could make nothing of these contradictory messages, and sent the ambassadors home without any reply.

It was on the morning of the 9th of August, 378, that Valens, leaving his treasure within the walls of the city, marched from Hadrianople to attack the enemy. After the army had proceeded for eight miles, under a blazing sun, they came unexpectedly in sight of the waggons of the Goths. The troops were hastily drawn up in battle array, while the barbarians broke out into the fierce chant with which they were accustomed to animate their courage before an engagement. The sudden advance of the Romans took Frithigern by surprise. The Ostrogoths under Alatheus and Safrax were many miles away in search of plunder, and had to be hurriedly sent for. In order to delay the fighting until his allies arrived, Frithigern sent to the Romans what we should call a flag of truce, pretending that he wished to make terms for surrender. The Romans fell into the trap, and answered that they were willing to agree to a parley if the Gothic chief would send some of his highest nobles as the bearers of his proposals. The messenger returned saying that Frithigern was willing to come and negotiate in person, provided that some officer of distinguished rank was previously sent to the Gothic camp as a hostage. This unexpected offer was hailed by the Romans with delight, and they at once began to discuss whom they should send. The unanimous choice fell on the tribune Equitius, commandant of the palace, and a relative of Valens; but he stoutly refused the dangerous office, saying that he had escaped from barbarian captivity once in his life, and there was no knowing what desperate thing the Goths might do if they got him in their power. The dispute was settled by Richomer, who nobly volunteered to accept the unwelcome task himself. During all these long discussions, the Roman soldiers were kept under the burning sun, tormented by thirst and hunger, while the Goths remained comfortably in their encampment.

Richomer had already started on his way to the Gothic camp, when he was called back by the news that the battle had already begun. Some Iberian troops in the Roman service, tired of the delay, had made an attack on the enemy without waiting for orders. They were immediately routed; and just at that moment the long-waited for Ostrogoth cavalry burst ("like a thunderbolt," says a contemporary writer) upon the Roman army. Frithigern caused the trumpets to be sounded for the attack; the Roman cavalry was soon dispersed, and the infantry, surrounded and forced into a dense mass so that they could not use their weapons, and worn out by hunger and fatigue, were slaughtered by thousands. The Roman general Victor, perceiving that the emperor was in a position of danger, and forsaken by his guards, went to his relief; but when he reached the place Valens was not to be found. Victor and the other generals then left the field; but the massacre of the Romans went on until it was interrupted by the darkness of night.

For many days after the battle parties of the Goths were constantly on the field, plundering the dead, so that none of the Romans ventured to make a search for the body of the emperor. What his fate had been was not known until many years afterwards, when a young Roman, who had escaped from captivity among the Goths, related how he had been one of a party of youths who had conveyed Valens, wounded by an arrow, to a cottage on the battlefield, where they tried to attend to his wound. The enemy attempted to burst open the door but failed, and not knowing who was inside, set fire to the cottage. All the occupants perished except the narrator of the story, who jumped out of the window. The Goths were bitterly disappointed when they heard from the survivor that they had thrown away the chances of capturing a Roman emperor alive, and securing for themselves his ransom. Whether this tale was true or not, it was at any rate very generally believed. Several Catholic writers of the fifth and sixth centuries, who imagined that Valens had been the cause of the Goths becoming Arians, have shown the ferocity of their religious hatred by the remark that it was a just doom that he who had caused the souls of so many Goths to suffer eternal fire should be burned alive by Gothic hands.

For the second time in history a Roman emperor had perished amid the total ruin of his army, in conflict with the Goths. But even the day of Abritta had been less terrible than was the day of Hadrianople. Two-thirds of the Roman army lay dead on the field, and amongst the slain were two generals of great renown, Sebastian and Trajanus, two high officers of the palace, Equitius and Valerian, and thirty-five tribunes. A contemporary historian says that no such disaster had befallen the Roman arms since that of Cannae. We can hardly doubt that if the Goths had been united and disciplined, and had known how to use their victory, the Eastern empire would have come to a speedy end. But this was not to be; the Goths could win battles, but the art of conquest they had yet to learn.