Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Fight with the Goths

Constantine lived seven years after he had completed the dedication of his new city, and died in peace and prosperity on the 22nd of May, A.D. 337, received on his death-bed into that Christian Church on whose verge he had lingered during the last half of his life. By his will he left his realm to be divided among his sons and nephews; but a rapid succession of murders and civil wars thinned out the imperial house, and ended in the concentration of the whole empire from the Forth to the Tigris under the scepter of Constantius II., the second son of the great emperor. The Roman world was not yet quite ripe for a permanent division; it was still possible to manage it from a single centre, for by some strange chance the barbarian invasions which had troubled the third century had ceased for a time, and the Romans were untroubled, save by some minor bickerings on the Rhine and the Euphrates. Constantius II., an administrator of some ability, but gloomy, suspicious, and unsympathetic, was able to devote his leisure to ecclesiastical controversies, and to dishonour himself by starting the first persecution of Christian by Christian that the world had seen. The crisis in the history of the empire was not destined to fall in his day, nor in the short reign of his cousin and successor, Julian, the amiable and cultured, but entirely wrongheaded, pagan zealot, who strove to put back the clock of time and restore the worship of the ancient gods of Greece. Both Constantius and Julian, if asked whence danger to the empire might be expected, would have pointed eastward, to the Mesopotamian frontier, where their great enemy, Sapor King of Persia, strove, with no very great success, to break through the line of Roman fortresses that protected. Syria and Asia Minor.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


But it was not in the east that the impending storm was really brewing. It was from the north that mischief was to come.

For a hundred and fifty years the Romans had been well acquainted with the tribes of the Goths, the most easterly of the Teutonic nations who lay along the imperial border. All through the third century they had been molesting the provinces of the Balkan Peninsula by their incessant raids, as we have already had occasion to relate. Only after a hard struggle had they been rolled back amass the Danube, and compelled to limit their settlements to its northern bank, in what had once been the land of the Dacians. The last struggle with them had been in the time of Constantine, who, in a war that lasted from A.D. 328 to A.D. 332, had beaten them in the open field, compelled their king to give his sons as hostages, and dictated his own terms of peace. Since then the appetite of the Goths for war and adventure seemed permanently checked: for forty years they had kept comparatively quiet and seldom indulged in raids across the Danube. They were rapidly settling down into steady farmers in the fertile lands on the Theiss and the Pruth; they traded freely with the Roman towns of Moesia; many of their young warriors enlisted among the Roman auxiliary troops, and one considerable body of Gothic emigrants had been permitted to settle as subjects of the empire on the northern slope of the Balkans. By this time many of the Goths were becoming Christians: priests of their own blood already ministered to them, and the Bible, translated into their own language, was already in their hands. One of the earliest Gothic converts, the good Bishop. Ulfilas—the first bishop of German blood that was ever consecrated—had rendered into their idiom the New Testament and most of the Old. A great portion of his work still survives, incomparably the most precious relic of the old Teutonic tongues that we now possess.

The Goths were rapidly losing their ancient ferocity. Compared to the barbarians who dwelt beyond them, they might almost be called a civilized race. The Romans were beginning to look upon them as a guard set on the frontier to ward off the wilder peoples that lay to their north and east. The nation was now divided into two tribes: the Visigoths, whose tribal name was the Thervings, lay more to the south, in what are now the countries of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Southern Hungary; the Ostrogoths, or tribe of the Gruthungs, lay more to the north and east, in Bessarabia, Transylvania, and the Dniester valley.

But a totally unexpected series of events were now to show how prescient Constantine had been, in rearing his great fortress-capital to serve as the central place of arms of the Balkan Peninsula.

About the year A.D. 372 the Huns, an enormous Tartar horde from beyond the Don and Volga, burst into the lands north of the Euxine, and began to work their way westward. The first tribe that lay in their way, the nomadic race of the Alans, they almost exterminated. Then they fell upon the Goths. The Ostrogoths made a desperate attempt to defend the line of the Dniester against the oncoming savages—"men with faces that can hardly be called faces—rather shapeless black collops of flesh with little points instead of eyes; little in stature, but lithe and active, skillful in riding, broad shouldered, good at the bow, stiff-necked and proud, hiding under a barely human form the ferocity of the wild beast." But the enemy whom the Gothic historian describes in these uninviting terms was too strong for the Teutons of the East. The Ostrogoths were crushed and compelled to become vassals of the Huns, save a remnant who fought their way southward to the Wallachian shore, near the marshes of the Delta of the Danube. Then the Huns fell on the Visigoths. The wave of invasion pressed on; the Bug and the Pruth proved no barrier to the swarms of nomad bowman, and the Visigoths, under their Duke Fritigern, fell back in dismay with their wives and children, their waggons and flocks and herds, till they found themselves with their backs to the Danube. Surrender to the enemy was more dreadful to the Visigoths than to their eastern brethren; they were more civilized, most of them were Christians, and the prospect of slavery to savages seems to have appeared intolerable to them.

Pressed against the Danube and the Roman border, the Visigoths sent in despair to ask permission to cross from the Emperor. A contemporary writer describes how they stood. "All the multitude that had escaped from the murderous savagery of the Huns no less than 200,000 fighting men, besides women and old men and children—were there on the river bank, stretching out their hands with loud lamentations, and earnestly supplicating leave to cross, bewailing their calamity, and promising that they would ever faithfully adhere to the imperial alliance if only the boon was granted them."

At this moment (A.D. 376) the Roman Empire was again divided. The house of Constantine was gone, and the East was ruled by Valens, a stupid, cowardly, and avaricious prince, who had obtained the diadem and half the Roman world only because he was the brother of Valentinian, the greatest general of the day. Valentinian had taken the West for his portion, and dwelt in his camp on the Rhine and Upper Danube, while Valens, slothful and timid, shut himself up with a court of slaves and flatterers in the imperial palace at Constantinople.

The proposal of the Goths filled Valens with dismay. It was difficult to say which was more dangerous to refuse a passage to 200,000 desperate men with arms in their hands and a savage foe at their backs, or to admit them within the line of river and fortress that protected the border, with an implied obligation to find land for them. After much doubting he chose the latter alternative: if the Goth, would give hostages and surrender their arms, they should be ferried across the Danube and permitted to settle as subject-allies within the empire.

The Goths accepted the terms, gave up the sons of their chiefs as hostages, and streamed across the river as fast as the Roman Danube-flotilla could transport them. But no sooner had they reached Moesia than troubles broke out. The Roman officials at first tried to disarm the immigrants, but the Goths were unwilling to surrender their weapons, and offered large bribes to be allowed to retain them; in strict disobedience to the Emperor's orders, the bribes were accepted and the Goths retained their arms. Further disputes soon broke out. The provisions of Moesia did not suffice for so many hundred thousand mouths as had just entered its border, and Valens had ordered stores of corn from Asia to be collected for the use of the Goths, till they should have received and commenced to cultivate land of their own. But the governor, Lupicinus, to fill his own pockets, held back the food, and doled out what he chose to give at exorbitant prices. In sheer hunger the Goths were driven to barter a slave for a single loaf of bread and ten pounds of silver for a sheep. This shameless extortion continued as long as the stores and the patience of the Goths lasted. At last the poorer immigrants were actually beginning to sell their own children for slaves rather than let them starve. This drove the Goths to desperation, and a chance affray set the whole nation in a blaze. Fritigern, with many of his nobles, was dining with Count Lupicinus at the town of Marcianopolis, when some starving Goths tried to pillage the market by force. A party of Roman soldiers strove to drive them off, and were at once mishandled or slain. On hearing the tumult and learning its cause, Lupicinus recklessly bade his retinue seize and slay Fritigern and the other guests at his banquet. The Goths drew their swords and cut their way out of the palace. Then riding to the nearest camp of his followers, Fritigern told his tale, and bade them take up arms against Rome.

There followed a year of desperate fighting all along the Danube, and the northern slope of the Balkans. The Goths half-starved for many months, and smarting under the extortion and chicanery to which they had been subjected, soon showed that the old barbarian spirit was but thinly covered by the veneer of Christianity and civilization which they had acquired in the last half-century. The struggle resolved itself into a repetition of the great raids of the third century: towns were sacked and the open country harried in the old style, nor was the war rendered less fierce by the fact that many runaway slaves and other outcasts among the provincial population joined the invaders. But the Roman armies still retained their old reputation; the ravages of the Goths were checked at the Balkans, and though joined by the remnants of the Ostrogoths from the Danube mouth, as well as by other tribes flying from the Huns, the Visigoths were at first held at bay by the imperial armies. A desperate pitched battle at Ad Salices, near the modern Kustendje thinned the ranks of both sides, but led to no decisive result.

Next year, however, the unwarlike Emperor, driven into the field by the clamours of his subjects, took the field in person, with great reinforcements brought from Asia Minor. At the same time his nephew Gratian, a gallant young prince who had succeeded to the Empire of the West, set forth through Pannonia to bring aid to the lands of the Lower Danube.

The personal intervention of Valens in the struggle was followed by a fearful disaster. In 378 A.D., the main body of the Goths succeeded in forcing the line of the Balkans; they were not far from Adrianople when the Emperor started to attack them, with a splendid army of 60,000 men. Everyone expected to hear of a victory, for the reputation of invincibility still clung to the legions, and after six hundred years of war the disciplined infantry of Rome, robur peditum, whose day had lasted since the Punic wars, were still reckoned superior, when fairly handled, to any amount of wild barbarians.

But a new chapter of the history of the art of war was just commencing; during their sojourn in the plains of South Russia and Roumania the Goths had taken, first of all German races, to fighting on horseback. Dwelling in the Ukraine they had felt the influence of that land, ever the nurse of cavalry from the day of the Scythian to that of the Tartar and Cossack. They had come to "consider it more honourable to fight on horse than on foot," and every chief was followed by his war-band of mounted men. Driven against their will into conflict with the empire, they found themselves face to face into the army that had so long held the world in fear, and had turned back their own ancestors in rout three generations before.

Valens found the main body of the Goths encamped in a great "laager," on the plain north of Adrianople. After some abortive negotiations he developed an attack on their front, when suddenly a great body of horsemen charged in on the Roman flank. It was the main strength of the Gothic cavalry, which had been foraging at a distance; receiving news of the fight it had ridden straight for the battle field. Some Roman squadrons which covered the left flank of the Emperor's army were ridden down and trampled underfoot. Then the Goths swept down on the infantry of the left wing, rolled it up, and drove it in upon the centre. So tremendous was their impact that legions and cohorts were pushed together in hopeless confusion. Every attempt to stand firm failed, and in a few minutes left, centre, and reserve, were one undistinguishable mass. Imperial guards, light troops, lancers, auxiliaries, and infantry of the line were wedged together in a press that grew closer every moment. The Roman cavalry saw that the day was lost, and rode off without another effort. Then the abandoned infantry realized the horror of their position: equally unable to deploy or to fly, they had to stand to be cut down. Men could not raise their arms to strike a blow, so closely were they packed; spears snapped right and left, their bearers being unable to lift them to a vertical position; many soldiers were stifled in the press. Into this quivering mass the Goths rode, plying lance and sword against the helpless enemy. It was not till forty thousand men had fallen that the thinning of the ranks enabled the survivors to break out and follow their cavalry in a headlong flight. They left behind them, dead on the field, the Emperor, the Grand Masters of the Infantry and Cavalry, the Count of the Palace, and thirty-five commanders of different corps.

The battle of Adrianople was the most fearful defeat suffered by a Roman army since Cannes, a slaughter to which it is aptly compared by the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus. The army of the East was almost annihilated, and was never reorganized again on the old Roman lines.

This awful catastrophe brought down on Constantinople the first attack which it experienced since it had changed its name from Byzantium. After a vain assault on Adrianople, the victorious Goths pressed rapidly on towards the imperial city. Harrying the whole country, side as they passed by, they presented themselves before the "Golden Gate," its south-western exit. But the attack was destined to come to nothing: "their courage failed them when they looked on the vast circuit of walls and the enormous extent of streets; all that mass of riches within appeared inaccessible to them. They cast away the siege machines which they had prepared, and rolled backward on to Thrace." Beyond skirmishing under the walls with a body of Saracen cavalry which had been brought up to strengthen the garrison, they made no hostile attempt on the city. So forty years after his death, Constantine's prescience was for the first time justified. He was right in believing that an impregnable city on the Bosphorus would prove the salvation of the Balkan Peninsula even if all its open country were overrun by the invader.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


The unlucky Valens was succeeded on the throne by Theodosius, a wise and virtuous prince, who set himself to repair, by caution and courage combined, the disaster that had shaken the Roman power in the Danube lands. With the remnants of the army of the East he made head against the barbarians; without venturing to attack their main body, he destroyed many marauders and scattered bands, and made the continuance of the war profitless to them. If they dispersed to plunder they were cut off; if they held together in masses they starved. Presently Fritigern died, and Theodosius made peace with his successor Athanarich, a king who had lately come over the Danube at the head of a new swarm of Goths from the Carpathian country. Theodosius frankly promised and faithfully observed the terms that Fritigern had asked of Valens ten years before. He granted the Goths land for their settlement in the Thracian province which they had wasted, and enlisted in his armies all the chiefs and their war-bands. Within ten years after the fight of Adrianople he had forty thousand Teutonic horsemen in his service; they formed the best and most formidable part of his host, and were granted a higher pay than the native Roman soldiery. The immediate military results of the policy of Theodosius were not unsatisfactory; it was his Gothic auxiliaries who won for him his two great victories over the legions of the West, when in A.D. 388 he conquered the rebel Magnus Maximus, and in A.D. 394 the rebel Eugenius.

But from the political side the experiment of Theodosius was fraught with the greatest danger that the Roman Empire had yet known. When barbarian auxiliaries had been enlisted before, they had been placed under Roman leaders and mixed with equal numbers of Roman troops. To leave them under their own chiefs, and deliberately favour them at the expense of the native soldiery, was a most unhappy experiment. It practically put the command of the empire in their hands; for there was no hold over them save their personal loyalty to Theodosius, and the spell which the grandeur of the Roman name and Roman culture still exercised over their minds. That spell was still strong, as is shown in the story which the Gothic historian Jornandes tells about the visit of the old King Athanarich to Constantinople. "When he entered the royal city, 'Now,' said he, 'do I at last behold what I had often heard and deemed incredible.' He passed his eyes hither and thither admiring first the site of the city, then the fleets of corn-ships, then the lofty walls, then the crowds of people of all nations, mingled as the waters from divers springs mix in a single pool, then the ranks of disciplined soldiery. And at last he cried aloud, 'Doubtless the Emperor is as a god on earth, and he who raises a hand against him is guilty of his own blood.'" But this impression was not to continue for long. In A.D. 395, the good Emperor Theodosius, "the lover of peace and of the Goths," as he was called, died, and left the throne to his two weakly sons Arcadius and Honorius.