Barbarian and Noble - Marion Lansing

A Roman and a Barbarian

There lived in the fourth century, three hundred years after the Rhine-Danube boundary had been established, a fierce old Gothic chieftain who hated the Romans with a bitter hatred. He had fought against them in his young days, but that was not the cause of his bitterness. Now in his old age he must sit in his dwelling on the west bank of the river and see that every year there was more crossing and recrossing, that every year his people were becoming more friendly with the Romans. He had watched his comrades go across that stream. Fine, sturdy young men they had been, and they had gone to serve in the Roman armies as paid soldiers. Then he had seen them come back, middle-aged men, early broken down by hard labor and Roman fever, and worst of all by Roman vices. They had given their best years to the Romans; they had won their victories for them; but they had been carelessly thrown aside when they became too old for service. All this and much else the old man had seen, and he had come to know that friendship with the Romans was an evil thing for a barbarian people.

Long hours the proud old warrior brooded over these matters, and one day he called to him his son Athanaric. Athanaric was a tall, handsome lad, with blue eyes which could blaze with anger when he was roused, and long, flaxen hair, which was the sign that he came of a family of chiefs. All the tribe loved the boy and looked to the day when they should choose him to be their leader, for the Goths were free men and chose whom they would to be their chief. The father's eyes rested on him with pride as he lay stretched on a bearskin at his feet, and then they grew stern and somber, for he had a purpose with the lad this day. He began to tell him tales of his forefathers. Hour after hour he related to him stories of these men who had been the heroes of the whole nation, and had added to the glory of the Gothic name, until the boy's heart was aflame with pride and his eyes shone like stars.

Then the old man changed his tales. They were still of the Goths, but they were recitals of their dealings with the Romans, of Roman treachery, of Roman schemes for rending away their land from the Goths,—always of the Romans as ruthless and overbearing conquerors. Athanaric's cheeks burned with indignation as he listened, and he no longer lay at his father's feet but stood before him with hands clenched. Last of all, in a low, sad voice the old man told of traitor Goths who had forgotten their birthright of independence and sold themselves to the conquerors. First they had been only foolish youths who had sought to win favor from the Romans by imitating their ways of dress and of living. They had been flattered by the attention which the crafty enemy had bestowed on them and by the services which they were allowed to render. They had gone deeper and deeper into the toils and had sold themselves and their honor for gold and position, until at last they had been disowned by their countrymen, and their names were never spoken.

"Never so long as I live will I forgive the Romans," declared the boy, passionately. "Always I will hate them, and when I am a man I will fight them."

"Yes, Athanaric, you shall fight them," replied the old warrior. "These arms of mine have lost their strength, and the blood runs slow in my veins; but you in the strength of your young manhood will lead our people forth and drive the Romans back when they try to cross yonder stream by force, as they surely will ere many years are gone."

Athanaric stood awed by the tone of assurance with which the old man spoke.

"Remember, my lad, when it comes to pass, what I have told you," and the old man looked far away across the river at the Roman towers as though he could see through them and beyond them. "The Goths will rue the day when they crossed to make friends with the Romans, for Roman armies shall find their way back. And now, Athanaric, promise me yet one thing, and I shall go to my grave in peace. Promise me, by the great Odin, ruler of the world, that never so long as you live will you set foot on Roman soil."

So Athanaric gave his promise, and his father's heart was satisfied, for now he knew that no one could deceive the lad and lure him away to destruction with promises of Roman gold or fame.

It came to pass, as the old man had foretold, that in the days when Athanaric was chief of the Goths the Romans tried to overstep the banks of the river. The strife was long and bloody, and the time came when both sides were glad to come together and discuss terms of peace.

Preceded by two standard bearers, who bore the royal purple banners of the emperor, the messenger came to the rude camp of the Goths. On the outskirts he was halted by a soldier who inquired his errand.

"Let me pass," demanded the Roman in an insolent tone. "I bear a message from my master to yours."

"That it is from your master I doubt not," retorted the guard, "but the Goths have no masters. We are free men, and all nobly born as well."

It was a clever shot, and true withal, for the name of Goth means "nobly born" and the Goths were proud to call themselves a nation of nobles when the Romans taunted them with being a nation of barbarians. The flush on the cheek of the ambassador showed that it had reached its mark, for he was, as it happened, one of the hired foreigners who had been promoted to high rank for the service he had rendered; but it still rankled that he was often looked down upon because he could not call himself a Roman born.

Without further words the guard led him to the hut of Athanaric, and there he learned the second lesson that had come to him that morning, for the haughtiness of the Roman ambassador made no more impression on the barbarian chief than his insolence had made upon the guard. To the message of invitation which Emperor Valens had sent, summoning him to a conference at which a truce could be concluded, Athanaric had but one answer. He had sworn that he would never set foot on Roman soil. Therefore he could not come to the royal tent. Gladly would he receive the Emperor Valens in his camp, but an oath was an oath. Yes, he was willing to confer concerning a truce, and his people were willing to end the war, provided the Romans would make certain promises; but the fact remained, he had sworn that he would not set foot on Roman soil, and set foot he would not! The ambassador threatened and commanded and pleaded, but to no purpose. He was forced to return to the Roman camp with the refusal of the stiff-necked barbarian and the message that Athanaric would gladly receive Emperor Valens in his own camp. The messenger could scarce conceal a smile when he gave the invitation to the emperor and contrasted the tapestry-hung pavilion of Valens, with its silken cushions, with the hut of green boughs in which he had been received across the river. But he knew in his heart that the rude barbarian was more of a man than the spoiled and flattered emperor, and he assured the Roman courtiers in no uncertain tone that it was of no use to try to change Athanaric's mind. He had sworn, and it was final.

Valens stormed and raged and declared that the war might go on for all he cared. It was naught to him if the barbarians were not ready to make peace. The man should come to him, or there should be no peace. That was the end of the matter.

The statesmen and generals who were the emperor's advisers waited till his storm of anger had passed; in truth they were very angry themselves at the barbarian's message. When their wrath had cooled somewhat they set about making a plan, and with it they went to Valens.

"My lord," said the chief general of the army, "we know that you are a god on earth, and this other is but a rude barbarian. Yet remember the battles we have lost and the men who have been drowned in the miserable Gothic swamps or overcome in the tangled forests. It is a wilderness beyond the river, and they are a savage and heathen people who defend it. What care we whether we possess it or not?"

"I care not a fig for the land of the Goths," replied Valens, pettishly. "But no man shall say to me, Come, and force me to come at his bidding, for am I not the emperor of the Romans, and nearer in rank to the gods than any man on earth?" Then they told him the plan which they had made,—that a Roman barge should be moored in the middle of the stream, and on it the truce should be concluded. Thus the dignity of the Roman name should be preserved, and yet the barbarian would be able to keep his vow. And so it was arranged and carried out. On a well-moored barge in the middle of the swift-flowing river the two met, the lordly emperor and the stern, proud chieftain. There a peace was concluded that was dishonoring to neither name. By its terms the Romans were to hold in security all their former possessions, while the barbarians agreed not to cross the river nor attack the Roman frontier. So the old-time boundary of Augustus, which had been in danger, was renewed, and, as his father had desired, Athanaric agreed that neither he nor his nation should cross over to trouble the Romans, provided Rome in her turn gave promise not to disturb the Goths in the possession of all the great region that lay on the east side of the Rhine and Danube rivers.