Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

Three Deadly Blows

To tell the story of the last century of the Roman Empire in any fullness of detail would be impossible in any space that I can command. I must limit myself to a narrative of what may truly be called the three most significant incidents in that period.

The first of the fatal blows which may be said to have brought the Empire of Rome to an end was dealt almost against the will of those from whom it came. The policy of Aurelian in ceding Dacia to the Goths had been, on the whole, successful. They had been contented and even friendly, finding sufficient employment for their arms in extending their power among their barbarous neighbours, and furnishing not a few recruits to the imperial armies. In 375 they were disturbed by reports of an invading host which was advancing from the north and east. These reports pictured the new-comers as hideous in appearance and cruelly savage in character. We are now used to the Tartar countenance, but to Europe in the fourth century the broad, almost beardless face, flat nose, eyes set wide apart, and squat figure, were as frightful as they were strange. As for the savagery of the Huns—for so the new-comers were called—rumours were scarcely exaggerated. The Goths had themselves in former times been scarcely less ferocious in their manners, but they had now for several generations been in contact with civilisation, and the Christian faith had begun to find its way among them. Both divisions of the nation, known by the names of Ostrogoths and Visigoths, were successively defeated by the invading host, which showed military skill as well as courage. The Ostrogoths submitted, as a body, to the invaders, though a considerable minority contrived to escape, taking with them their infant king. The Visigoths resolved to throw themselves on the protection of Rome. They sent envoys to the Emperor (Valens), and begged that they might be permitted to cross the frontier. After some delay Valens gave his consent, and the whole nation—a few scattered companies excepted—was transported across the Danube. The numbers of the refugees may be calculated at a million, as there were no less than two hundred thousand males of the military age. It had been stipulated that all weapons should be given up. But this condition was very generally evaded. The corrupt officials of the Empire were ready, for a consideration, to permit the Gothic warriors to keep their arms. Having thus allowed them to remain formidable, they proceeded, with almost incredible folly, to insult and oppress them in every possible way. They robbed them of their wives and children, and sold at extortionate prices the food which the Imperial Government was bound to provide without cost.

Meanwhile the generals of Valens neglected to maintain the defences of the Danube, and a large body of Ostrogoths who had been refused a passage over the river, took the matter into their own hands, and crossed over into the province. The two branches of the nation were not long in coming to an understanding, and making common cause against their oppressors. It was not long before the smouldering fire burst into flame. The first battle took place not far from Pravadi, where Claudius had defeated the Goths many years before. We know little about this conflict except its result, which, as the historian of the Goths (or, as he calls them, Getae) puts it, was to bring about a state of things in which the Goths were no longer strangers and foreigners, but members of the State and lords of the country which they occupied. An indecisive engagement followed at a spot called Salices  ("The Willows") in the low land near the mouth of the Danube, but the great battle of the war was fought at Hadrianople. Valens, who had spent a considerable time, with little profit to the Empire, at Antioch, returned in the early summer of 378 A.D. to Constantinople. After a brief rest in that city, where he made some changes in the chief commands of his army, he marched northwards and fortified a camp under the walls of Hadrianople. It was debated between the Emperor and his chief advisers whether or no they should fight at once. There were many reasons for delay. Valens occupied a strong position, and had the command of unlimited supplies. The barbarians, on the other hand, were ill-provided in every respect, and would most certainly grow weaker the longer they were compelled to keep the field. Another powerful consideration was, or should have been, the approach of Gratian, Emperor of the West, to whom Valens had appealed for help, and who was now advancing eastward by forced marches. Gratian had, indeed, sent a special messenger imploring Valens not to risk a battle before his arrival. Unfortunately this request had an effect exactly opposed to what had been intended. Valens was anxious to secure for himself all the glory which would come from the victory which he confidently expected, and when Gratian begged for delay, he at once resolved to fight.

It was the height of summer, and Valens was scarcely acting with judgment when he moved out of his position under the walls of Hadrianople, and commenced a march which could not be expected to be accomplished under four hours—the distance to be traversed was ten miles—with the intention of attacking the enemy. In any case the men would have been not a little wearied or exhausted; as it was, one wing of the army considerably out-marched the other, and that which had lagged behind was forced to hurry that it might take its proper place in the line. Even after this time was wasted, for Valens was amused with proposals for a truce or cessation of arms which the enemy had no intention of acting on. One of the imperial generals, possibly impatient of' the delay, made an attack which was easily repulsed. The Gothic cavalry, in reply, charged with fatal effect. The Roman horsemen fled before them, and the legions, left alone in an open plain to face an enemy superior in force, were practically destroyed. The fate of Valens is uncertain; but the more generally received account was that, having been severely wounded, he was carried off the field to a cottage in the neighbourhood. Before any way of escape could be discovered, before even his wound could be dressed, the cottage was surrounded by the enemy. The inmates did their best to defend it, and the Goths, impatient of delay, set fire to it and burnt it to the ground. Valens, anyhow, was never seen again. The army of Rome was swept from the earth at Hadrianople as completely as it had been at Cannae, but Rome had lost in the five centuries that separated these two great disasters her power of recovery.

The next great blow received by Rome came also from Gothic hands. The first mention of Alaric shows us a significant change in Roman policy. The Gothic chief holds a high command in the armies of the Empire, and was employed by the ruler in possession in his struggle against a pretender. When he turned against his employer it was because he was disappointed in his ambition of filling a yet higher post. There is no need to describe his career at length. A brief outline shows plainly enough, not only his genius, for he was certainly a statesman and a soldier of great ability, but the deplorable weakness of the Empire. At first, indeed, he had an antagonist who was more than his match. In 396 he openly revolted, and marched into Greece, which he plundered without meeting with any resistance, for the country had long since passed into a condition of helpless servitude. But he was pursued by Stilicho, himself a barbarian by birth—a soldier who was equal to any of the great commanders of the past. The Goths found themselves shut up in the Peloponnesus. Their leader, however, contrived to extricate himself from his difficulties, transporting his army across the western end of the Gulf of Corinth, and occupying Epirus. The next thing in his extraordinary career was that he was appointed by the Emperor of the East—the Eastern and Western Empires had been finally severed four years before—to be the Governor of the province of Illyricum. Here he was able to plan and prepare his schemes for the final conquest of Rome. That the opportunity for so doing should have been given by the power that should have been Rome's closest ally was a sure sign of the approaching ruin.

A few years after his establishment in Illyricum, Alaric, who had been in the meantime saluted king by his countrymen, felt himself equal to the task of invading Italy. Stilicho, however, was still in command of the Roman armies—now almost wholly recruited from barbarian tribes—and he proved himself more than a match for the Gothic king. The great battle of Pollentia (in Northern Italy) was contested with more than usual stubbornness. Fortune changed sides more than once. Stilicho's genius prevailed, however, in the end; the Goths were driven from the field; their camp was taken, and Alaric's wife fell into the hands of the conquerors. But the great leader was not yet beaten. His cavalry, the principal strength of his forces, had not been broken, and he formed the bold scheme of marching upon Rome. This, however, was given up; he accepted, in preference, the offer of Stilicho, who proposed to allow him to depart unharmed from Italy, on condition of his becoming for the future an ally of Rome. He did not, however, intend to perform his part of the bargain. On the contrary, he formed a scheme for possessing himself of Gaul. But his plans were betrayed to Stilicho, and he suffered another defeat in the neighbourhood of Verona which was not less disastrous than that of Pollentia. Even then, however, he was a formidable enemy, and Stilicho allowed him to retire from Italy, rather, than drive him to extremities,

After four years, years of incessant drain upon the resources of the Empire, Alaric prepared to renew his attempt on Rome. Stilicho had been executed. Possibly he deserved his fate, for he had certainly cherished ambitions which did not become a loyal subject. But there was no one to take his place at the head of the legions. Certainly Alaric met with no opposition as he marched through Italy, finally pitching his camp under the walls of Rome. Resistance was impossible; it only remained to see what was the smallest price at which the enemy could be bought off. Two envoys from the Senate approached the king. They began by counselling prudence. It would be well, they said, if Alaric did not drive a brave and numerous people to despair. "The thicker the hay, the easier to mow," was the king's answer. When asked to name the ransom which he was willing to accept, he declared that he must have all the gold and silver that they possessed, all their valuables, and all the slaves of barbarian birth. "What then do you leave us? "was the question which the envoys in their consternation put to him. "Your lives," he answered. In the end, however, he consented to a compromise, by which he was to receive five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, and a quantity of precious articles, silk, cloth, and spices.

The respite thus purchased was but brief. The ministers of the Emperor, safe themselves in the fortress of Ravenna, behaved with a strange mixture of weakness and treachery. Their crowning act of folly was to permit a barbarian chief in their pay to make an unprovoked attack on a detachment of Goths. This was indeed destroyed, but the victory was dearly purchased. Alaric, justly indignant at such behaviour, broke off all negotiations, and marched on Rome. The Senate prepared to make all the resistance possible. But nothing was really done. Some traitors within the city opened one of the gates, and the Goths made their way into the city, which was given over to slaughter and plunder for six days. Rome may be said to have thus lost for ever her claim to rule the world. But her cup of humiliation was not yet full.

Attila and Pope Leo


Alaric did not long survive the conquest of Rome. He died in the same year, and was buried—so, indeed, the story runs—in the channel of a stream whose waters had been diverted for the time, the labourers who performed the work being slaughtered to keep the secret of his resting-place from being ever divulged.

But Rome was to fall into the power of a conqueror yet more powerful and more ferocious. Attila was a Hun, and is said to have even exaggerated in his personal appearance all the characteristic deformities of his race. The boundaries of the Empire can hardly be defined, but it is certain that it was of enormous extent. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that it reached from China to the Rhine. The hosts that followed him were almost beyond counting. For once the incredible numbers in which the historians of antiquity delight were no exaggeration. It is probably a modest estimate of his host to say that it consisted of half a million combatants.

Powerful as he was, the king of the Huns was not permitted to pursue his course without opposition. Rome could still produce or rather adopt great soldiers—AŽtius, the great antagonist of Attila, was a Scythian by birth as Stilicho was a Vandal—and great soldiers can always find men to follow them. In the earlier part of Attila's reign, his operations were carried on within the limits of the Eastern Empire. In 450 he attacked the West, one of his pretexts being the refusal of the Emperor Valentinian III. of his proposals for the hand of the Princess Honoria. He crossed the Rhine with a huge army at Strasburg, and marched on Orleans. But AŽtius was prepared for him. A great battle was fought at Ch‚lons-sur-Marne, the last successful effort of the Roman arms. One of the notable features of the battle is the division of the Goths, the Ostrogoths following the standard of Attila, while the Visigoths fought for Rome. The loss of men amounted to between two and three hundred thousand, but it was not unequally divided. AŽtius could not prevent the retreat of Attila, who retired into Eastern Europe, where he spent some months in recruiting his army.

Early in the following year he crossed the Alps, descended into Italy, and after capturing and totally destroying the city of Aquileia, marched Romewards. He never reached the city, indeed. Not far from Mantua he was met by three ambassadors, one of them the bishop of Rome known as Leo the Great. They brought the offer of a complete submission. The Emperor no longer refused the condition which he had before peremptorily rejected. The Hunnish king was to have the hand of the Princess Honoria, and with her, as Gibbon epigrammatically puts it, "an immense ransom or dowry." The marriage never took place, for Attila died in the following year, but he had inflicted on Rome a humiliation even greater than that which she had suffered at the hand of Alaric.

One more event I must record, because in a way it completes this great period of history. In 475 a youth who bore the name of Romulus and the nickname of Augustulus was raised to the throne by his father Orestes, who secured for a time control of such armies as still obeyed the Empire. In the following year Orestes was defeated and slain, and his son permitted to abdicate. Italy passed into the hands of Odoacer, king of the Heruli. The Old World had passed away and the New had begun.