Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Judges of the Visigoths

We told you in the last chapter that during the third quarter of the fourth century the Visigoths formed part of the great empire of the Ostrogoth 1rmanaric. In the earlier part of the famous conqueror's reign, while his power was still at its height, it is very probable that they were his subjects in reality as well as in name. But when the Ostrogothic kingdom began to be invaded by the Huns, and the conquered nations were claiming their freedom, the Visigoths seem to have been allowed to manage their own affairs as they liked, and to wage war or make treaties on their own account, without waiting for the approval of the Amaling king.

The Visigoths were divided into three tribes or petty kingdoms, which were ruled by "judges" named Athanaric, Frithigern, and Alawiw. Of these three chieftains Athanaric was the most powerful, and the other two seem to have recognized his claim to leadership. He had inherited his power from his father Rothestes, who had been a faithful ally of the Romans, and had received the honour of a statue or a memorial column at Constantinople. Athanaric is said to have been a brave warrior, but his history perhaps gives more evidence of his cunning than it does of his bravery.

In order to understand the story of the Visigoths under their "judges," we must take a glance at the events that had been happening at Constantinople.

When Constantine the Great died in 337, he was succeeded first by his three sons, and afterwards by his nephew Julian, who is called the Apostate, because he forsook Christianity, and during his two years' reign set up heathenism as the religion of the empire. After Julian's death, the Romans thought they had had enough of the house of Constantine, and chose as their emperor Jovian, an officer of the imperial household. But he only lived a year after he was raised to the throne, and then the diadem was bestowed on Valentinian, the most successful general of his time.

Valentinian, though uneducated, was a man of strong mind and resolute will; but he perceived that the government of the Roman world was a task too heavy for one man to manage. He therefore determined to share the supreme power with his brother Valens, whom he sent to Constantinople as emperor of the East, while he kept for himself the rule over the western provinces. Unfortunately Valens, though a brave soldier and a well-meaning man, had little decision of character or knowledge of men; and just at this time the Eastern empire needed a strong and skillful ruler even more than did the empire of the West. To make the matter worse, Valens did not even know Greek, which was the language spoken by the greater part of his subjects. It was not long before the emperor found himself entangled in fearful difficulties; and his weak and vacillating policy—doing a thing one day and undoing it the next, losing precious time in long deliberation, and then acting rashly after all brought on a succession of calamities that came very near destroying the Eastern empire altogether.

Since the time of Constantine, the Visigoths had faithfully observed the treaty which they had made with that emperor, and had continued to supply their promised number of men to the Roman armies. Athanaric, so far as we can discover, honestly intended to continue the policy of friendship with Constantinople, but he made a great mistake which cost him and his people dearly. A cousin of the emperor Julian, named Procopius, rebelled against Valens, expelled him from Constantinople, and got himself proclaimed emperor. He called on the Visigoths to fulfill their treaty engagements; and Athanaric, regarding Procopius as the real emperor, at once sent over thirty thousand men into Thrace. Apparently Athanaric did not go himself, for his father (so at least he said afterwards) had made him swear never to set foot on Roman soil. We can imagine how the thirty thousand would enjoy the opportunity of returning, actually under imperial sanction, to their old sport of plundering the Thracian provincials. But while they were ravaging the country, never dreaming of resistance, they suddenly learned that Procopius was dead, and that Valens was again master at Constantinople. Instead of having earned the gratitude of the Roman Empire, they had made it their enemy By cutting off their supplies and provisions, and preventing them from retreating across the Danube, the generals of Valens managed, without very much fighting, to compel the Goths to surrender at discretion. The Romans spared their lives, but sold the common soldiers into slavery, and sent the chiefs to live as prisoners of war in distant parts of the empire.

When Athanaric heard of this disaster, he sent ambassadors to Constantinople; but it was not by any means to beg humbly for mercy from the conqueror. Instead of that he assumed an air of injured innocence. His envoys bitterly reproached the astonished Romans with an unprovoked breach of the treaty between the two nations. All that the Visigoths had done, they said, was to render their promised assistance to the Roman Empire. To be sure they had in their simplicity supported the wrong emperor; but instead of being angry with them for their mistake Valens ought to have been thankful to them for their good intentions I They therefore demanded that their prisoners of war should at once be set at liberty.

One would suppose that this audacious demand would have been at once rejected with laughter; but Valens seems at first to have been half inclined to agree to it. However, he wrote for advice to his brother Valentinian, who, as might have been expected, told him to go and attack Athanaric in his own country. Valens did so, and the war lasted three years. The Romans won most of the battles, but they did not make much progress towards subduing the country, and they were glad at last to agree to a peace. The cunning Athanaric consented that the Gothic chieftains should be deprived of the pensions they had been accustomed to receive from the Romans; but he managed to procure an exception in his own favour, and to get himself recognized by the Romans as king of all the Visigoths. When the conditions of peace were agreed upon, Valens wished that the treaty should be ratified at a personal interview between himself and Athanaric, for whom he seems to have conceived a good deal of respect. Athanaric, however, pleaded that the oath he had taken to his father prevented him from crossing the Danube into Roman territory, and he threatened that he should consider the peace broken if the emperor set foot in Dacia. He proposed that the meeting between Valens and himself should take place in boats in the middle of the Danube. There is something amusing in the clever way in which Athanaric continued to avoid everything that looked like a confession of defeat. Valens must have felt that the barbarian was laughing at him, but he did not venture to refuse the offered arrangement. The treaty was confirmed, and the emperor, as well as Athanaric, had to give hostages as security for its faithful observance. The result of these negotiations was anything but a brilliant success for the ruler of Constantinople, but of course he celebrated a triumph when he got home, and the Court scribes and orators talked as if Valens had been another Claudius Gothicus.

For the next two or three years (the peace was concluded in the year 369), Athanaric was busy persecuting the Christians (who, as we shall find in the next chapter, were becoming numerous among the Visigoths), and in a petty war with Frithigern, who was defeated and driven out of the country, though he was soon reinstated by the Romans. However, in the year 376 the judges of the Visigoths had made up their quarrels, and Athanaric was acting as commander-in-chief of the armies of the whole nation, which were massed on the west bank of the Dniester, with the Huns facing them on the other side. As the enemy had no boats, Athanaric thought himself safe from immediate attack. But one moonlight night a body of the Huns made their horses swim over the river, and surprised the Gothic camp. Athanaric had to retreat hastily to the west of the river Pruth, where there were some deserted Roman earthworks which he meant to repair, and by means of them to offer defiance to the foe. But the Visigoths were stricken with panic, and would think of nothing but flight. Frithigern and Alawiw sent ambassadors to the emperor, begging him to let them cross the Danube. When Athanaric saw that he could not persuade the people to offer any resistance, he went away with a few hundred men towards the northwest, into a country which the Roman writers call Caucalanda, a name which is evidently meant for hauhaland, the Gothic form of our English word Highland, and probably denotes the mountain region of Transylvania.

And so Athanaric disappears from our story for four or five years, during which time his rival Frithigern was practically king of all the Visigoths.