Barbarian and Noble - Marion Lansing

Goth Against Goth

The chief problem of a barbarian king was to find means to feed his people. In the century of the wandering of the nations the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire had been so often plundered and devastated by barbarian peoples that they had become barren and unfruitful. It was a heavy responsibility which fell on the shoulders of the young king Theodoric, coming to the Gothic throne when he was only twenty years old, and he deemed himself fortunate that he was able to render assistance to the new claimant to the imperial chair of Rome, which was left vacant in that year by the death of Emperor Leo. Roman favor meant Roman gold with which to pay his armies and buy corn and grain. When the new emperor, Zeno, assumed the purple robes, he did not forget the protection which Theodoric had given him when, a fugitive from his enemies, he had been forced to flee into Gothic territory, but presented to him a position and title which few men as young as he had held,—the office of Patrician and Master in Arms. Besides this he publicly adopted him as his own personal son in arms. The good fortune which had begun on the day of his birth seemed to be continuing with the young king.

No one's fortunes were secure, however, from one day to another in the fickle Roman court. The second year of Zeno's reign and Theodoric's favor had not closed before the other Theodoric, known in history as the One-eyed, who had made trouble for King Theudemir by obtaining the friendship of Emperor Leo fifteen years before, appeared at Constantinople to stir up trouble for Theudemir's son with the new emperor. Again he claimed that he was the rightful king and leader of a much larger nation of East Goths than that over which the boy Theodoric ruled. The wily Zeno was in a quandary. There was not money enough to pay both sets of Goths. Loyalty bade him stand by the son of Theudemir, the prince of the house of Amal; but Roman emperors cared little in those days for loyalty and much for power. Zeno only wanted to keep on his side the one who could help him most, and to leave as his enemy the one who could do least harm, and it is a rare compliment to our young Theodoric that he decided it was better policy to keep friendship with him.

Theodoric the One-eyed promptly began to make trouble. He and his people plundered neighboring cities, and came southward toward Constantinople. Reports reached the Roman capital of large armies which he was gathering on the frontier. Zeno began to repent of his decision and to wonder if he had done well to antagonize one who was proving himself so powerful a leader. He tried to make terms with him, offering to take him into the circle of allies on the same conditions which he had come to Constantinople to seek a few months before; but this time it was the turn of the Goth to refuse. He would not yield until the quarrel was settled once for all, and Theodoric the Amal was discredited forever.

The emperor had now no choice. There must be a war, but who should carry it on? Who, he reflected, but the man over whom he was having all this trouble? So he sent to Theodoric the Amal a pressing and peremptory message, saying that the time had come for him to prove himself worthy of the honors bestowed upon him, by assisting in the war which was being waged against his rival.

Theodoric had not been brought up in the midst of Roman intrigue for nothing. He refused to come into the quarrel until the emperor and senate had bound themselves by a solemn vow to enter into no treaty with the other Gothic leader. Then, knowing that otherwise he would lose his important alliance with the Romans, and that his people would lose the money which meant meat and drink to them in the impoverished province where they lived, he proceeded to the war. A campaign was laid out by which his troops and Roman forces from two neighboring provinces were to arrive at the same time in the Balkan country where the One-eyed had stationed his forces. Theodoric carried out his part of the program and found himself, after a terrible march through wild mountain country, alone with his Gothic troops in the presence of the enemy, who were occupying an impregnable position at the top of a steep cliff. The Romans had failed to appear.

There was no chance for battle. Parties of horsemen came down the steep paths from the heights and skirmished with Theodoric's men, who attacked in their turn when the horsemen from the cliff had to come into the plains to get fodder for their horses; but there could be no decisive fighting till the enemy were willing to come down into the valley and take their chances in an open battle. So it went on from day to-day. Still the Romans did not come; and each morning Theodoric the One-eyed would take advantage of his unassailable position and, sheltered by some rock from the arrows of the warriors in the valley, would stand on his hilltop and pour forth a storm of reproach on the young Theodoric, "that perjurer and enemy to the whole Gothic race," as he called him.

"Silly and conceited boy!" he would shout, and Theodoric was powerless to stop him or to prevent his people from listening, "you do not understand the Romans nor see through their design. They intend to let the Goths tear one another to pieces, while they sit by and watch the game at their ease, sure of the real victory, whichever side is defeated. And we the while, turning our hands against our brethren, are to be left an easy prey to the tricks of the Romans. O son of Theudemir! which of their promises have they kept? They have led you to your own destruction, and the penalty of your stupidity will fall on the people whom you have betrayed."

Such were the words which came from the cliff one morning, and then the voice ceased, and Theodoric's people were left to think over what had been said. The next morning it would begin again.

"Ho, Theodoric, scoundrel! why art thou leading so many of my brethren to destruction? Why hast thou made so many Gothic women widows? What has become of all that abundance of good things which filled their wagons when they first set forth from their homes to march under thy standard? Then they owned two and three horses apiece. Now, without a horse they must needs limp on foot through Thrace, following thee as if they were thy slaves. Foolish boy, not long will they heed thy calls. They will be wiser than their king."

Theodoric could have fought with flesh and blood, but against these cool and cutting taunts delivered by an unseen voice he was powerless, for the picture drawn by his rival was all too true. Roman ingenuity and treachery had devised this new scheme of slipping out of the war at the last moment and leaving the Goths to fight against and destroy each other. When the men and women of the Gothic camp came to the tent of the young king, clamoring for peace with their kinsmen, he had nothing to say. It was a bitter moment for Theodoric when he came to the banks of the stream to make terms with the man who had been the cause of his childhood exile in the court of Constantinople, and whose voice he had daily heard in reproach and insult. He went through his part like the king he was, and made a formal treaty of reconciliation and peace with his namesake, but he did not forget to whose treachery this humiliation was due. It took ten years of Roman favors to wipe out from the memory of the proud young barbarian the bitterness of that hour.

So Emperor Zeno found himself with two enemies instead of one, and for a time even he was baffled by this new turn of affairs. He went to work with his usual weapon of intrigue, trying to make terms secretly with each party of the Gothic alliance, but his efforts were in vain. Both sides stoutly maintained that they had come at last to see reason. Goth would no longer fight with Goth for no quarrel of their own, but at the bidding of an outsider.

Theodoric the One-eyed met the Roman ambassadors with high flown protestations about the unity of the Gothic race and the evils of brothers fighting with one another. His only quarrel was with the young king Theodoric, whose army, as a matter of fact, he hoped to win over to his standards. Theodoric the Amal met the Roman advances with a recital of his grievances which Emperor Zeno must have found it hard to answer.

"I was willing enough," said he, "to live in peace and quiet in my Gothic province, beyond the Roman territory, giving obedience to the emperor and doing injury to no man. Who summoned me forth from this retirement and insisted on my taking the field against this rival Goth, Theodoric the One-eyed? The emperor. He promised that the Master of the Soldiery for Thrace should join me with an army; he never came. Then that Claudius, the keeper of the funds, should bring me pay for my troops; he, too, did not appear. Thirdly, guides who were given to me, instead of taking the smooth and easy roads which would have led me straight to the camp of my foe, brought me up and down all kinds of steep and dangerous places where, if I had been attacked, with all my long train of horses and wagons and my following of women and children, I must without doubt have been destroyed. Brought at a disadvantage into the presence of our enemies, I was forced to make peace with them. Yea, in truth, I owe them great thanks for saving me alive, when owing to your treachery they might easily have wiped out me and my army forever."

These personal claims and his desire for revenge he would nevertheless lay aside for the sake of his hungry people, if the emperor would assign to him some district for a permanent dwelling place and would provide rations of corn for his people until they could reap their own harvest. Otherwise, he added significantly, he could not prevent his famished army from supplying their needs in any way they could. It was a noble and kingly answer, but it did not suit the emperor, who had no intention of drawing so heavily on the imperial treasures if he could help it.

Things began to look serious in Constantinople. The generals called in their troops from Greece and Turkey. This might be the end of Roman intrigue and the beginning of the great Gothic-Roman war which had so long been predicted. But Zeno had not used all his schemes. He had not yet tried personal bribery. To Theodoric the Amal he now offered large sums of gold and silver and a Roman damsel of the imperial family in marriage. The straightforward son of King Theudemir and the good queen Erelieva would not hear to such proposals. But the One-eyed was not so upright. He only waited till the offers became large enough, and then he forgot his horror of Goth fighting Goth, and agreed to turn upon his ally and drive him out of the country. He did not, however, succeed. For the next few years Theodoric the Amal proved a troublesome enemy to the Romans. One unchanging need controlled and guided his movements. He must have food for his wandering peoples. So we hear of him now in one city, now in another, with his army, always victorious but never despoiling save to win food and shelter for his people. Other barbarian tribes tore down the treasures of art from the palaces and churches and stripped the buildings of all that made them beautiful. Theodoric had lived too long at the Roman court to allow such barbarities save when the inhabitants refused him corn and provisions. Then his Gothic temper came to the front, and he burned and pillaged without mercy.

There was never a lasting peace between the Roman emperor and our Theodoric till the One-eyed died. Then Theodoric became the undisputed leader of all the Goths. Thirty thousand men were added to his armies, and he was able to terrorize the whole Roman border. Zeno made haste to conclude a satisfactory peace with him, and we see him once more in Constantinople, this time as consul, giving his name to the year and exercising all the prerogatives of that honorable office. Three years he enjoyed the luxuries of life at the Roman court, and to the Roman-bred young ruler they must have had many charms over the hard life as leader and provider for a wandering people. But Theodoric had too much nobility of character and too much Gothic blood in his veins to be satisfied as the petted dependent of an alien race. The call of his people came to him, and he responded. This is the way the historian tells it:

"Meanwhile Theodoric, who was bound by covenant to the empire of Zeno, hearing that his nation were not too well supplied with the necessaries of life while he was enjoying all the good things of the capital, and choosing rather, after the old manner of his race, to seek food by labor than to enjoy in luxurious idleness the fatness of the Roman realm while his people were living in hardship, made up his mind and spoke to the emperor."

With the wisdom which was to make him a world famous ruler, Theodoric had seen that there was no chance for him or his people in the crowded eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Ignoring, with an audacity which leaves us breathless but admiring, the thousand miles of mountain and valley and river which lay between, he announced to the Roman emperor that he would like to go over with his people into Italy, and requested that he and his people be given that kingdom to hold "as a gift and under his imperial protection." Both parties seem to have ignored the fact that Italy was held by a barbarian people and ruled over by Odoacer, a Goth who had lost favor with his people by becoming, in his young manhood, a courtier of the hated Attila. The emperor had little friendship for these barbarian occupants of Italy, although they were nominally under his control; but he could not give any real help to Theodoric, who must win the land by hard fighting. He went through the form of granting Theodoric's request, and with many expressions of regret allowed the Goths to go. But we must think that he was more willing to spare them than he admitted, and that he was glad to get so powerful and difficult a "son in arms" safely out of his way in the distant land of Italy.

So Theodoric started with his nation army of more than two hundred thousand Goths on the long, hard journey over into Italy. "Since Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness," says the chronicler, "so great a migration had not been undertaken." Putting into the wagons the women and children and as much furniture as they could take, the men set out on the great highway that followed the course of the Danube River, but their way did not lie for many miles over smooth roadways. There is a story of a great swamp to which they came. Enemies pressed upon them before and behind, and there was no chance to turn aside. The Gothic vanguard drove their horses into the swamp. Many sank in the treacherous waters, and those who came safely across were falling before the lances which their foes on the other side were hurling against the reed woven breastplates of the Goths. Then Theodoric shouted: "Whoso will fight the enemy let him follow me. Look not to any other leader, but only charge where you see my standards advancing. The Gepids shall know that a king attacks them; my people shall know that Theodoric saves them."

Cool and watchful in the moment of peril, he had seen in the apparently trackless swamp a narrow way which he believed to be solid ground. Urging his horse to a gallop he dashed across it, and his people followed his lead. "As a swollen river through the harvest field, as a lion through the herd," so did Theodoric charge upon the enemy, and they fell back in terror before him. The victory was doubly important because in their flight the enemy left their wagons of provisions behind them, and the Goths were delivered from famine for another stage of their journey.


No other leader could have planned such a march, and no people less hardy and courageous could have carried it through. Queen Erelieva and the Gothic women suffered untold miseries in the wild mountain passes, where the cold was so intense that the yellow locks of the chiefs were whitened with frost, and the icicles hung from their beards. But the day came when the pastures were green again and the rich lowlands of Italy lay before the eyes of the weary company. On the plains of Verona Theodoric met Odoacer, the soldier-general who then ruled Italy.

As Theodoric was donning his armor, buckling on his breastplate of steel and hanging his sword by his side, his mother Erelieva and his sister Amalfrida came to the royal tent.

"Bring forth, O my mother and sister, my most splendid robes, those on which your fingers have worked the most gorgeous embroidery," he said to them. "I would be more gayly dressed on this day than on a holiday. Mother, to-day it behooves me to show to the world that it was indeed a man child whom you bore on that great day of the victory over the Huns. I too, in the play of lances, have to show myself worthy of my ancestor's renown by winning new victories of my own. Before my mind's eye stands my father, the mighty Theudemir, he who never doubted of victory, and therefore never failed of it. Clothe me therefore in rich apparel for this great day. If the enemy do not recognize me, as I intend they shall, by the violence of my onset, let them know me by the brilliancy of my raiment. If fortune give my throat to the sword of my enemy, let them at least say, 'How splendid he looks in death,' if they have not had the chance to admire me fighting."

With such brave and confident words Theodoric cheered his mother and sister, and then went forth to fight for the land which he had come a thousand miles to conquer. His good fortune did not desert him, and though it took more than one battle to win so great a land, yet within five years he was the conqueror and acknowledged ruler of all Italy.

Another barbarian approaching Rome, but this time with a new purpose,—not to destroy but to buildup! It has been said that until they met the Teutonic peoples the Romans had been able to Romanize every nation with which they came in contact, but that the Goths succeeded in Teutonizing Roman institutions. It was this which Theodoric was to do in Italy. With his Gothic inheritance and his Roman training he took up the work, which the Romans had been forced by weakness to lay down, of ruling the barbarian nations of Europe. By an administration in which Gothic strength was tempered with Roman wisdom he earned the title of "The Gothic Civilizer."