Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Breaking the Frontier

If you look at the map of Europe you will see two great rivers,—the Rhine and the Danube,—flowing in opposite directions across the continent, one emptying into the North Sea and the other into the Black Sea. Their mouths are thousands of miles apart; yet when you follow up the course of each, you find that they come nearer and nearer, until, at their sources, the distance between them is no greater than a good walker might cover in a day. Thus these two rivers almost form a single line across the whole of Europe. Each in its lower course is broad and deep, and makes a good boundary for the countries on its banks. The Roman armies in the old days often crossed these rivers and indeed gained victories beyond them; but they found it so hard to keep possession of what they conquered there, that in the end they decided not to try. So for many years the Rhine and the Danube rivers formed the northern boundary of the Roman Empire.

In the last chapter you have read something of the Germans who lived north and east of this boundary. Among these peoples there was one which was to take the lead in breaking through the frontier and bringing about the downfall of the great empire of Rome. This was the nation of the Goths.

In the latter part of the fourth century after Christ, the Goths dwelt along the shores of the Black Sea and just north of the lower course of the Danube River. There they had been dwelling for more than a hundred years. According to the stories which the old men had told their sons, and the sons had told their children after them, the Goths at one time had dwelt far to the North, on the shores of the Baltic. Why they left their northern home, we do not know. Perhaps it was because of a famine or a pestilence which had come upon the land; perhaps it was because of a victory or a defeat in war with their neighbors; perhaps it was because of the urging of some great leader, or because of an oracle of their gods.

At any rate, the Goths did leave their homes by the Baltic Sea, to wander southward through the forests of what is now Western Russia. After many years, they had arrived in the sunnier lands about the Danube. There they had come in contact with the Romans for the first time. For a while there had been much fighting between the two peoples; but at last the Goths had been allowed to settle down quietly in these lands, on condition that they should not cross the river Danube and enter the Roman territory. And there they had dwelt ever since, living peaceably, for the most part, alongside their Roman neighbors and learning from them many civilized ways.

The greatest thing that the Goths learned from the Romans was Christianity. Little by little they ceased worshiping Thor and Woden, and became Christians. This was chiefly due to one of their own men, named Ulfilas, who spent a number of years at Constantinople, the Roman capital of the world. There he became a Christian priest; and when he returned to his people he began to work as a missionary among them. Ulfilas had many difficulties to overcome in this work; but the chief one was that there was no Bible, or indeed any books, in the Gothic language. So Ulfilas set to work to translate the Bible from the Greek language into the Gothic. This was a hard task in itself; but it was made all the harder by the fact that before he could begin he had to invent an alphabet in which to write down the Gothic words. After the translation was made, too, he had to teach his people how to read it. In all this Ulfilas was successful; and under his wise and patient teaching the Goths rapidly became Christians. At the same time they were becoming more civilized, and their rulers were beginning to build up a great kingdom about the Danube and the Black Sea. Suddenly, however, an event happened which was to change all their later history, and indeed the history of the world as well. This was the coming of the Huns into Europe.

The Huns were not members of the great Aryan family of nations; and indeed the Germans and the Romans thought that they were scarcely human at all. They were related to the Chinese; and their strange features and customs, and their shrill voices, were new to Europe. An old Gothic writer gives us a picture of them. "Nations whom they could never have defeated in fair fight," he says, "fled in horror from those frightful faces—if, indeed, I may call them faces; for they are nothing but shapeless black pieces of flesh, with little points instead of eyes. They have no hair on their cheeks or chins. Instead, the sides of their faces show deep furrowed scars; for hot irons are applied, with characteristic ferocity, to the face of every boy that is born among them, so that blood is drawn from his cheeks before he is allowed to taste his motherís milk. The men are little in size, but quick and active in their motions; and they are especially skillful in riding. They are broad-shouldered, are good at the use of the bow and arrows, have strong necks, and are always holding their heads high in their pride. To sum up, these beings under the forms of men hide the fierce natures of beasts."

Hun Warrior


The Goths were brave, but they could not stand against such men as these. The EAST-GOTHS, who dwelt about the Black Sea, were soon conquered, and for nearly a century they continued to be subject to the Huns. The WEST-GOTHS, who dwelt about the Danube, fled in terror before the countless hordes of the new-comers, and sought a refuge within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. As many as two hundred thousand fighting men, besides thousands of old men, women, and children, gathered on the north bank of the Danube, and "stretching out their hands from afar, with loud lamentations," begged the Roman officers to permit them to cross the river and settle in the Roman lands.

The Roman Emperor, after much discussion, granted their request; but only on hard conditions, for he feared to have so many of the Goths in the land. The Gothic boys, he said, must be given up to the Romans as hostages, and the men must surrender their arms. The situation of the Goths was so serious that they were forced to agree to these terms; but many of them found means to bribe the Roman officers, to let them keep their arms with them. At last the crossing began; and for many days an army of boats was kept busy ferrying the people across the stream, which at this point was more than a mile wide.

In this way the West-Goths were saved from the Huns; but they soon found that it was only to suffer many injuries at the hands of the Roman officers. The emperor had given orders that the Goths were to be fed and cared for until they could be settled on new lands; but the Roman officers stole the food intended for them, and oppressed them in other ways. Some of the Goths, indeed, fell into such distress that they sold their own children as slaves in order to get food.

This state of affairs could not last long with so war-like a people as the Goths. One day, in the midst of a banquet which the Roman governor was giving to their leader, an outcry was heard in the palace-yard, and the news came that the Goths were being attacked. At once the Gothic leader drew his sword, saying he would stop the tumult, and went out to his men.

From that time war began between the Romans and the West-Goths.

About a year after this (in the year 378 A.D.) a great battle was fought near Adrianople, a city which lies about one hundred and forty miles northwest of Constantinople. The Emperor Valens was himself at the head of the Roman army. His flatterers led him to believe that there could be no doubt of his success; so Valens rashly began the battle without waiting for the troops that were coming to assist him.

The Romans were at other disadvantages. They were hot and tired, and their horses had had no food; the men, moreover, became crowded together into a narrow space where they could neither form their lines, nor use their swords and spears with effect.

The victory of the Goths was complete. The Roman cavalry fled at the first attack; then the infantry were surrounded and cut down by thousands. More than two-thirds of the Roman army perished, and with them perished the Emperor Valens—no one knows just how.

The effects of this defeat were very disastrous for the Romans. Before this time the Goths had been doubtful of their power to defeat the Romans in the open field. Now they felt confidence in themselves, and were ready to try for new victories. And this was not the worst. After the battle of Adrianople the river Danube can no longer be considered the boundary of the Empire. The Goths had gained a footing within the frontier and could wander about at will. Other barbarian nations soon followed their example, and then still others came. As time went on, the Empire fell more and more into the hands of the barbarians.

These effects were not felt so much at first because the new Emperor, Theodosius, was an able man, and wise enough to see that the best way to treat the Goths was to make friends of them. This he did, giving them lands to till, and taking their young men into the pay of his army; so during his reign the Goths were quiet, and even helped him to fight his battles against his Roman enemies. One old chief, who had remained an enemy of the Romans, was received with kindness by Theodosius. After seeing the strength and beauty of the city of Constantinople, he said one day:

"This Emperor is doubtless a god upon earth; and whoever lifts a hand against him is guilty of his own blood."

But the wise and vigorous rule of Theodosius was a short one, and came to an end in the year 395. After that the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, and a Western Empire, with its capital at Rome. After that, too, the friendly treatment of the Goths came to an end, and a jealous and suspicious policy took its place.

Moreover, a new ruler, named Alaric, had just been chosen by the Goths. He was a fiery young prince, and was the ablest ruler that the West-Goths ever had. He had served in the Roman armies, and had there learned the Roman manner of making war. He was ambitious, too; and when he saw that the Empire was weakened by division, and by the folly of its rulers, he decided that the time had come for action.

So, as an old Gothic writer tells us, "the new King took counsel with his people and they determined to carve out new kingdoms for themselves, rather than, through idleness, to continue the subjects of others."