Stories from German History - Florence Aston

Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun


Since Hermann's great victory over the Romans, their mighty emperors had ceased to dream of conquering the German tribes, and had been obliged to rest within their own territories, content if they could guard them on every side from invasion by the victors. So the tables were turned, and proud Rome, only too thankful to be able to retain what she had already conquered, busied herself in shaking off these wild tribesmen, who, like angry hornets, stung and worried painfully, swarming in upon her in numbers seemingly without end.

The German tribes had learnt a lesson of great worth. They had found that unity was strength, and that it was only by unity they could hope to oppose successfully the trained legions of Rome. So they banded themselves together, Franks and Goths and Saxons and many others, not only to strengthen their fighting forces by alliances with kindred tribes, but to fortify their positions of defence. Huge walls were built, deep moats were dug and ramparts raised, the remains of which may be seen to this day.

The Goths who lived on the eastern side of the German realm waxed strong and great and acted as a bulwark between the Roman Empire and the weaker German tribes. So large indeed did this tribe grow that they were regarded by their allies as two tribes, and were known among them as the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, or Eastern and Western Goths. The name Goths was probably derived not from the locality in which they then lived, but from the situation of their ancient home, for they were not really a Germanic tribe, nor native to the German land, but were Scandinavians who had made their way across the frozen Baltic, seeking more fertile lands.

The religion of the Goths resembled that of other northern races. 'By the hammer of Thor' was a favourite oath with these mighty warriors of old. The memory of their gods and goddesses is preserved in the names of the days—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are the days dedicated to the worship of Tiw, Woden, Thor and Freya. Near Upsala, which is now one of the university towns of Sweden, there once existed a vast temple sacred to these gods. It was believed that Woden delighted in the blood of human sacrifice, and new the temple lay a dark and gloomy wood, where among the tree-roots and from out the moss gleamed white the skulls and bones of victims of his altars. For centuries these lay there, grim witnesses to a nation's blind groping in the dark for a god of truth and light, until the temple was finally destroyed in the eleventh century by Ingo, King of Sweden. When the Goths migrated and came in contact with the eastern provinces of Rome, they early adopted the Christian faith. Perhaps they were the first race from German soil to do so, for it is believed that even in the days of Constantine, Gothic bishops were present at the Council of Nice held in the year 825.

The great apostle of the Goths was their bishop, Ulphilas, whose fierce and fiery eloquence lashed into enthusiasm the hardy warriors of the north. He wished to translate the Scriptures into the Gothic tongue, but was confronted with difficulties before which any ordinary man would have yielded in despair.

Not so the gallant bishop of the Goths. His first step was to compose an alphabet and introduce new symbols for the Gothic sounds that did not exist in the Greek or Latin. The Goths cared nothing for the learning of monks and shavelings, and the hands that grasped the spear and sword scorned to wield the pen. So Ulphilas laboured at his task till it was done, and in the university at Upsala there may be seen to-day a most beautiful manuscript copy of the Scriptures traced in silver letters upon purple vellum. It is called the 'Silver Manuscript' and is the oldest specimen of writing in any Germanic dialect. Omissions in the books of Kings and Chronicles are noticeable, for Ulphilas dared not tell his countrymen the stories of ancient warfare, knowing well that this would appeal to their rude nature more than the love of Christ. They would have listened greedily to the exploits of Israelite conquerors and have followed in their steps, slaying Amalekites and Philistines and driving the foe before them from Aroer even unto Dan, forgetting end ignoring the gentle words of exhortation to mercy and to forgiveness of these foes. Such was the Gothic race which was indeed to prove the terror of the Roman Empire.

At one time the Western Goths quarrelled with their eastern brethren, and formed a close alliance with their dreaded Roman foes, serving in their armies under the leadership of men of their own race.

In the fourth century, the Roman Empire was divided into two parts, and the sons of the Emperor Theodosius reigned, one at Rome and the other at Constantinople. Among the Goths at the court of the Eastern Emperor was a young warrior named Marie, who was, by the will of his countrymen, elected commander of the Gothic forces. It was a happy choice, for when the Huns poured into the land, conquering and reducing the Eastern Goths to submission, the Western Goths, with Alaric at their head, repulsed them.

Not content, however, with his victories over the heathen invaders, Alaric soon found a pretext for turning against the Romans. Impatient at the delay of payment of money due to him for the support of his troops, he placed himself at their head, assumed the title of King, and broke into Greece, marching through Thessaly, Macedonia, Thrace and Illyria, wasting and burning as he went. The Emperor Honorius dispatched a Roman army to check his advance, but Alaric cleverly evaded it, and all that was gained was a truce and a promise of cessation of hostilities from the Goths in return for a strip of land in Illyria, where they settled peacefully for a season. This peace did not last long. In the year 400 Alaric made an attempt to cross the Alps into Italy and failed, but he tried again the following year, with good success. Then it was that the Romans were forced to withdraw their troops from Britain and the Rhine to face the Goths in Italy, for Alaric had swept on, carrying all before him on his march.

He ignored the Western Emperor Honorius, and passed him by as he lay entrenched within the fortress of Ravenna, surrounded by a maze of swamps and bogs. Appearing before the walls of Rome, the mighty Goth summoned the inhabitants to surrender. Horror and dismay clutched the heart of every Roman, for since the days of Brennus, more than seven hundred years earlier, no barbarian conqueror had set his foot within the sacred streets of their city. The warlike spirit of the ancient Romans was long dead, so they had recourse to bluster, striving to hide their fears. "Countless as sands on yonder seashore are the inhabitants of Rome," they boasted. "All are skilled in use of arms. All are bold in play of sword."

Alaric merely laughed and glanced keenly at the men and their defences. Then the Romans sued for peace, but Alaric replied that he would spare the city only on condition that he received 5000 pounds' weight of gold, 80,000 pounds' weight of silver and a proportionate quantity of spoil.

The Romans remonstrated with him in despair. "Such a sacrifice would beggar us," they pleaded. "What should we have left?"

"Your lives," curtly replied Alaric.

"We are still numberless as the sands," they threatened.

"Come out, then, quickly," responded the Goth. "The thicker the grass, the more easily it is mown."

Remonstrances and threats were alike in vain. Proud Rome was obliged to submit, emptying herself of her treasures, and, true to his promise, Alaric and his Goths withdrew from the city walls; without committing any act of violence. He retraced his steps to Ravenna, and lay before it some months, but finding the city impregnable he raised the siege, and during the next year once more appeared before the walls of Rome. An old story relates that he sent three hundred Germans in the garb of slaves as presents to the Roman nobles, and that these men opened the gates of the city. Be that as it may, the year 410 saw barbarians once more within the precincts of the sacred city, not in the guise of slaves nor as prisoners, but as conquerors, slaying and destroying on every hand.

Yet the Goths behaved with greater moderation than might have been expected from a race so rude and wild. Christianity had taught them to restrain their cruel instincts, and they did not slay wantonly nor rejoice in cutting down those who were defenceless. They spared the weak, the priests and fugitives, and, contrary to all expectations, did not fire the city of Rome.

It was said that their departure was hastened in the following manner. A certain Goth entered the house of a woman, intending to plunder, and found within her dwelling magnificent sacred vessels of silver and gold from one of the Roman churches, which had been entrusted to the woman to keep, the priests thinking that no Goth would seek booty in the house of a poor widow. When the woman explained to the intruder the sanctity of the treasure, he left her house immediately and reported the matter to his king.

Alaric commanded that the vessels should be carried back into the church, and reverently placed on the altar. So pleased were the Romans at this instance of piety that they joined in the procession with rejoicing and song, and this sign of unity so astonished the Goths that they desisted from their work, and plundered no more.

The Emperor Honorius was greatly relieved at this. He was a feeble man, whose sole pleasure consisted in feeding his cocks and hens. When he heard of the threatened doom of the imperial city he was much disturbed, since his favourite cock was also called 'Rome,' and he considered it an evil omen for the bird. But as the days passed on and it was only the city that suffered and not the cock, his confidence was restored.

Flushed with success and laden with booty, Alaric now swept on into Southern Italy, embarking forces on board ship for Sicily and Northern Africa. His fleet, however, was wrecked at Messina during a violent hurricane, and he himself soon afterward died, in the year 410, in the thirty-fourth year of his age.

So perished Alaric, the great king of the Visigoths, in the flower of his youth, in the pride of his strength, in the hour of victory. No one knows his resting-place, for in accordance with ancient custom, his followers bore his body to the bed of the River Bassano, which they had temporarily diverted from its course. Dressed in armour and seated on his horse, he was buried in the channel, and, as soon as the body had been deposited in its resting-place, the waters were released from their sluices and allowed to rush back into their ancient bed. The prisoners who had been employed in the work were put to death, that all knowledge of Alaric's sepulchre might be lost. No man should learn its whereabouts, no foe disturb his rest.


A new king led back the Western Goths to Gaul, founding there another kingdom, which spread its borders far and wide, even over Spain, and endured three hundred years, to yield at last before advancing Moors. Truly the wild Germanic tribes proved the scourge of Europe, their very names a terror to frighten disobedient children and a memory at which the boldest warrior shuddered and drew nearer to his rude hearthstone. From their homes, north and east of the Danube and the Rhine, where the Germans had settled in the days of Augustus, Emperor of Rome, tribe after tribe moved southward and westward, till they gradually overran the greater part of the Roman Empire. The Goths swept over the Balkan Peninsula, down into Greece and Italy, and appeared in the sacred city of their mighty Roman lords, defying them in splendid insolence, and, stripping them of their boasted treasures, swept on to further conquests. The Burgundians moved to a new home in the valley of the Upper Rhine, until, defeated in battle by Hunnish tribes, they abandoned their position for one on the banks of the Rhone.

The Vandals too left their strongholds between Vistula and Oder, and, led by their new king, Genseric, had penetrated even into North Africa, winning there a realm, from which place of vantage they made expeditions into Italy, sadly harassing the declining power of Rome. Even to the City of the Seven Hills they penetrated, carrying off such treasures as had remained after the devastation of Alaric the Goth. Thousands of Roman nobles were dragged away to live the lives of servants or of slaves. Treasures of art from temple and palace, stately pillars and splendid carvings were carried bodily to their ships, and thence conveyed to Africa to adorn a kingdom that continued its sway for at least a hundred years. Sad it is to find that many of these ships foundered at sea under the weight of their precious height, and the blue waves of the Mediterranean hide priceless beauty for ever lost to the world. Thus the Vandals earned for themselves a name which has never perished, and to this day 'vandalism' stands for wanton destruction and pillage of beautiful things by those who have no feeling for their beauty and no conception of its value to the world.

The Goths themselves were next attacked by a wild and barbarous race called the Huns, who poured in upon them and resisted all attempts to press them beck. The Huns originally had lived on the steppes or boundless plains which lie between Russia and China in the country which we now call Siberia. An ancient Roman writer, Ammianus Marcellinus, has left us a description of them which calls before the mind a picture of a people truly terrible in their ferocity. They were short, thick-set, broad-shouldered and so hideous that he compared them to wild beasts waddling heavily on hind legs, or to the grinning images carved on the posts of bridges. Their hair was black and bristling, their skin a dingy, yellowish hue, and their little eyes, set slantwise in the face like those of Chinamen, glared wildly, separated by a flat and ugly nose. No dwelling-place they knew, but from their very childhood they roamed the plains on horses, from which they were inseparable, eating, drinking, even sleeping in the saddle. Their food consisted of roots and raw flesh. They did not cook their meat, but laid it like a saddle on their horses' backs, and after a wild chase across the plains the savage warrior would draw his dinner from under him and tear it to pieces with his teeth. They lived entirely in the open air, in hunger and thirst, in cold and heat. Their wives and little ones were dragged after them in carts. Their greatest joy was battle, into which they rushed with howling like that of ferocious beasts. Without order or plan they charged, showering arrows, hacking and hewing with sword and knife, and, casting slings of rope around the necks of their enemies, they would drag them choked and mangled from the field. Such was the race that poured in upon the Goths in the fifth century after Christ. Fearful was the destruction that accompanied the Huns' advance, and terrible the desolation that remained, when, like a wave of the sea, the wild army swept onward in unrelenting might. The most famous of their leaders was the king who appears in early German epics as 'Etzel,' but who is best known to later generations as Attila, 'the Scourge of God.' A scourge in truth he was to the Roman Empire as to the German tribes.

Attila, the king of the warriors renowned throughout the world for their brutal hideousness of form, was himself no less ugly than his followers. Short and squat, large-headed and flat-nosed, his face scarred with the self-inflicted wounds by which the Huns checked any growth of beard, his wild eyes rolling fiercely in his head, he yet looked every inch a king, and when he turned his gaze on them, men quailed and dropped their glance. Surrounded by a band of kings and princes, rulers of tribes whom he had forced into submission, he delighted in proving his power. They trembled beneath his eye, started guiltily when he stirred, and hastened in servile obedience to his command.

In his capital in Hungary he maintained a kingly state. There his palace rose amid a large village of retainers' dwellings, like them built of wood, but unlike them of noble dimensions with lofty halls and rich furnishing. In his own home he loved to display his splendour, watching sourly, but well content, as his guests ate, from dishes of gold and silver, the daintiest fare to the music of minstrels, who sang and played and provoked laughter with merry tales. Amid the scene of riot and excess sat Attila the Scourge of God, dark-browed and gloomy. No jest could call a smile to his grim lips. He served his guests on gold and silver, but would suffer only the coarser viands to be prepared for his own eating, and those upon the simplest wooden platter. A true Hun, he ate no bread himself, but lived entirely upon flesh. His clothing and the equipment of his horses were plain in the extreme, but his kingly bearing and wondrous dignity of movement, despite his ill-formed body, marked him out to every eye as a leader among men. His decrees struck terror to the heart of nations. Men said that when he thrust his sword into the earth, a hundred tribes would tremble, and Rome and Constantinople shudder in their far-off fastnesses. He himself it was who assumed the title the Scourge of God, the chosen chastiser of the human race, and truly in every land in which he set his foot he was a scourge of terror and a rod of chastisement.

It is said that a poor cowherd brought to Attila a rusty blade which had wounded his cow as it lay concealed beneath the earth, and that the great warrior had seized the sword and boldly proclaimed himself holder of the weapon of the God of War, and from that time his rough tribesmen not only feared and revered him, but actually believed him half divine, and endowed with supernatural force by 'the God of War himself, whom they were accustomed to worship under the symbol of a sword.

The boldest of his warriors dared not look him in the face. They followed his lead with the blind faith of perfect devotion, and spread such destruction through the nations that Attila himself boasted grimly that where his horse's hoofs had trod no grass would grow. He gathered strength like some gigantic forest-tree, spreading its huge arms and grappling the earth in vice-like roots. By the middle of the fifth century his power extended from the borders of Asia far into Germany itself, and he had drawn to his standard all the various families of Huns, together with numerous Germanic tribes whom he had encountered on his way.

After defeating the Ostrogoths he attacked Constantinople itself, and was only induced to leave the city by the offer of large bribes. After this he turned and entered Gaul. Old writers say that his army numbered more than half a million warriors, and covered the earth as the locusts darken the plains. Before him lay fair cities and prosperous lands, behind him a dark track of smoking ruins told of desolation fulfilled.

Stung to madness and despair, his enemies gathered round. Goths, Franks and Romans fought side by side against this common foe, and on the plain of prance, where to-day the city of Chalons stands, was fought, in the year 451, the furious battle that decided whether Europe should belong to the hardy Germanic tribes or to the barbaric Huns. Old sagas tell of conflict fierce and long, of 200,000 warriors who lay dead upon the field, of the spirits of the dead wrestling three days in the air with the souls of unseen foes, but Attila the Scourge of God was beaten and thrust back. With bowed head and eyes smouldering with baffled fury he rode suddenly from the field. His nerve was gone. Fears waited henceforth around his path, ghosts waved and beckoned and nightly terrors made sleep hideous.

Attila and Pope Leo


Yet once more he rallied his forces, crossed the Alps and broke into Northern Italy. The inhabitants of Aquileia fled before his face to the marshy islands near the mouth of the River Brenta, founding thus in flight and terror the lovely city of Venice, Bride of the Adriatic Sea. Attila swept on toward Rome, but his march was no longer the triumphant sweep of a wave of devastation. A broken and baffled man, he was haunted by superstitious terrors and hindered on his course. Disease too broke out among his army and prevented its advance. As he lay encamped by the lovely Lake Garda, a deputation from Rome approached and begged an audience of the fierce barbaric king. And Attila the Scourge of God watched sullenly the train that now appeared before his throne. Led by the cross, the sign of our redemption, came Leo the Great, Pope of Rome, and after him a long procession of monks and priests chanting the penitential psalms. Leo entered the tent of Attila, and pleaded his cause so sadly and persuasively that the fierce Hun, fascinated by so much saintliness and sweetness, promised to take warning from the fate of Marie the Goth and not only to spare Rome but evacuate Italy.

It is said that as Attila watched the train of holy priests, a fixed and terrified expression stole into his eyes. He half rose from his seat with a guttural exclamation, stretched out a trembling hand, pointed, and fell back, one arm across his face. For there behind the saintly band he saw in light appear the forms of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Grave and terrible was the gleam of anger in their eyes, and Attila the Scourge of God shrank from them and slunk away—away from the blue skies and glittering lakes of Italy, northward to the cold mists and whistling winds of the gloomy German forests; and there he died.

His end was fearful, and came with painful suddenness on the night of his marriage with the fair Burgundian lady, Ildico. He had retired late to rest, drunk with wine, as was the barbarous custom of the Huns, and on the following morning his warriors found him struggling in the agonies of death. Some said that Ildico stabbed him in the breast, others thought that an artery had burst, for blood flowed from mouth and nose. Soon the wild, fierce spirit fled from the tired body and Attila passed away. They took up the body reverently, mindful of his wonderful renown, and laid it on his bed, covering it with rich silken robes. His warriors filed past the bier and rode round and round the royal tent on horseback, chanting their rude funeral hymns in lamentation for the mighty dead, and gashing their faces with their knives.

They buried him with great pomp, placing his body in a golden coffin, which was enclosed in one of silver, and again in one of iron. The whole army followed the leader to his grave, and as soon as they drew nigh the spot, the huge coffin was consigned to the care of captives taken in war. By their hands it was lowered in the earth, together with the dead king's arms and horse and many treasures, and then the captives were slain, that no man might know the place where Attila was laid.

The domination of Italy now passed definitely into German hands. In 476 Odoacer, a powerful chief of the Heruli tribe, dethroned the feeble Roman Emperor, and ruled in his place with the title of King of Italy. But his rule soon gave place to that of the nobler tribe of Ostrogoths, who extended their may under the leadership of the great Theodoric.