Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Goths and Theodosius

On the morning after the battle, the victorious Goths at once began to lay siege to the city of Hadrianople, where they had got to know that the imperial treasure had been deposited. But "fighting with stone walls" requires more patience than the barbarians had yet learned to exercise. When their first assaults on the place were repulsed with heavy loss, they gave up the attempt in disgust, and after two days marched away to besiege Constantinople. Their first attack was so violent that they had nearly succeeded in forcing the gates, and perhaps if their fury had continued unabated the imperial city would have soon become their prey. But a band of Arab horsemen in the Roman service issued from the city, and a sharp conflict took place. The skirmish was indecisive, but a panic was created among the Goths by the sight of an act of cannibalism on the part of one of the Arabs, who sucked the blood of his slain adversary. The thought of having to fight with enemies of such inhuman ferocity chilled their courage, and after continuing the siege half-heartedly for a short time, they abandoned it as hopeless. Carrying away a large quantity of plunder from the suburbs outside the city walls, they wandered away to the north, and spread themselves once more over the provinces from the Black Sea to the Adriatic, which had so often before been the scene of their ravages.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


We do not know much about what the Goths may have done in Thrace and Illyria during the two years following their great victory. The Roman writers complain bitterly of the havoc and devastation which they wrought, but they tell us no details. But surely the worst deeds of the barbarians can scarcely have equaled in cruelty and treachery the infamous act by which the civilized and Christian Romans revenged themselves on innocent persons for the defeat at Hadrianople. It will be remembered that on several occasions when treaties were made between the Goths and the Romans, a number of the children of Gothic nobles were given up to the Romans, as security for the faithful observance by the Goths of their engagements. As these young "hostages" had usually been sent away to the East, it happened that at the time we now speak of most of the cities of, Asia Minor contained a considerable population of Gothic youths. The war minister of the Eastern empire, Julius, had heard rumours that great excitement prevailed amongst these young Goths at the result of the battle of Hadrianople, and that many of them had openly expressed disloyal sentiments. No successor had yet been appointed in the room of Valens, and Julius obtained from the Senate of Constantinople a vote authorizing him to do whatever he thought necessary for the good of the State. He then sent to the governors of the Asiatic provinces secret instructions that the Gothic youths should be induced, by promises of gifts and honours, to assemble on a certain day in the market-places of their respective cities. When they were collected together, the place of meeting was to be surrounded by troops, and the defenceless Goths were to be unsparingly massacred. This dreadful plan was successfully carried out, and its author was praised to the skies for having delivered the Eastern provinces from a terrible danger. It is true that these young Goths had been given up by their people as hostages, and the forfeiture of their lives, when the treaty had been broken, was "in the bond"; but such an excuse does little to lessen the guilt of Julius, or of the Roman public which applauded his treacherous deed.

Happily the ruler who was chosen to succeed Valens was a man of a spirit very different from that of Julius. It was in January, 379, that the great Theodosius was appointed by Gratian emperor of the East. In his reign of sixteen years he proved once more, what every really great emperor since Aurelian had proved before him, that a policy of justice and kindness could convert even the turbulent Goths into faithful allies and subjects of the empire.

But before Theodosius could venture to do anything to conciliate the Goths, it was necessary that he should make them feel that he was to be feared. He had to reorganize his shattered army, and to teach his soldiers to overcome the terror which had been inspired by the crushing defeat of Hadrianople. His policy was not to risk any great battle, but to fight only when he had such advantages of position and numbers as made victory certain, so that his own troops grew gradually bolder, and the Goths became disheartened, as they saw that the gains of the contest, if not singly very important, always fell to the Roman side. The quarrels among the barbarians did much to help the Roman cause, and from time to time Gothic chiefs who thought themselves slighted by Frithigern deserted to the emperor, who gave them abundance of honours and rewards. One of these deserters, named Modahari, was entrusted with a high command in the imperial army, and gained for the Romans the greatest victory they obtained in the war.

Frithigern seems to have died sometime in 379 or 380, and in the latter year Athanaric crossed the Danube. On what ground he considered himself released from the oath by which he had professed to be prevented from treading Roman soil, we do not know, but very likely this had only been an excuse. He was soon acknowledged by the greater portion of the Visigoths as their king, and his first act was to make a treaty of peace with the emperor. Theodosius invited him to Constantinople, and entertained him splendidly. The sights which he beheld there impressed him with profound astonishment. "Often," he said, "have I been told of the grandeur of this city, but I never believed that the stories were true. The emperor is a god on earth, and whoever resists him is guilty of his own blood." Athanaric did not long survive his arrival at Constantinople. He died in January, 381, and was honoured with a royal funeral and a costly monument.

During the next two years those Visigothic tribes which had not joined in the treaty made by Athanaric were induced one after the other to make their submission to the emperor. In the year 386, the band of Ostrogoths who had formerly followed Alatheus and Safrax, and were now led by a chief named Audathaeus, had returned to Dada after having made a raid into the north and west of Germany, and had attempted to cross the Danube into Thrace. Their fleet of boats, however, was unexpectedly attacked by the Roman soldiers; great numbers of the invaders perished by the sword or by drowning, and those who succeeded in reaching the southern bank at once surrendered to the Romans.

The sovereignty of Theodosius was now acknowledged by the whole Gothic nation, excepting only the Ostrogoths north of the Danube mouths and the Black Sea, who still continued under the Hunnish yoke. The emperor understood the character of his new subjects well enough to perceive that gratitude and honour were the ties which could best secure their faithfulness, and his conduct towards them was marked by kindness and confidence. The Visigoths were provided with lands in Thrace, and the Ostrogoths in Asia Minor; and large gifts of corn and cattle were made to them. They were allowed to govern themselves by their ancient laws. Their warriors were embodied into a separate army, under the name of allies, receiving handsome pay and honoured with many special privileges, and many of the Gothic nobles were promoted to high office in the state and in the imperial household. These measures had their intended effect. Although, no doubt, there were movements of discontent here and there, yet as long as Theodosius lived the great body of the Goths seem to have regarded their benefactor with feelings of passionate loyalty. In his wars against the Western usurpers, Maximus and Eugenius, the Gothic warriors rendered invaluable service.

It is plain that Theodosius took the best course that was open to him under the circumstances. The Goths could neither be expelled nor subdued by force. The only chance of rendering them harmless lay in winning their attachment, in making them feel that their rulers were their friends. For this purpose no cautious half-measures would have been of any use. The emperor's policy of unreserved confidence might appear too bold, but its seeming rashness was the truest prudence.

But indeed the state of things was such that every policy which could be adopted was full of terrible danger. Just imagine what the situation was. A vast people of foreigners, divided from their fellow-subjects in language, national feeling, and religion, and remembering that they had lately been the conquerors of the Romans, were settled in the heart of the empire; and forty thousand of their warriors were incorporated into a separate army, supplied with Roman weapons, and to be trained in the art of war under skilled Roman generals. And it was soon easy to see that the indulgence bestowed on the Goths had developed in them a pride which would not tolerate the smallest slight, and might easily prompt them to wish to be masters instead of subjects. It is said that Theodosius himself, though he was always regarded by the Goths as their friend, was not ill-pleased when he heard that they had suffered heavy losses in battle; and we can scarcely wonder if it was so. Even had Theodosius been succeeded by a long line of emperors as wise as himself, it is unlikely that the loyalty of the Goths to the empire could have been maintained for many years. But what might in that case have happened we do not know; whether the outbreak of the Gothic revolt might have been prevented or not, at any rate it was hurried on through the folly of the successors of the great emperor, and the recklessness of their selfish and ambitious ministers.