Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Goths Cross the Danube

The doom of Rome was at hand. Its empire had extended almost illimitably to the east and west, had crossed the sea and deeply penetrated the desert to the south, but had failed in its advances to the north. The Rhine and the Danube here formed its boundaries. The great forest region which lay beyond these, with its hosts of blue-eyed and fair-skinned barbarians, defied the armies of Rome. Here and there the forest was penetrated, hundreds of thousands of its tenants were slain, yet Rome failed to subdue its swarming tribes, and simply taught them the principle of combination and the art of war. Early in the history of Rome it was taken and burnt by the Gauls. Raids of barbarians across the border were frequent in its later history. As Rome grew weaker, the tribes of the north grew bolder and stronger. The armies of the empire were kept busy in holding the lines of the Rhine and the Danube. At length Roman weakness and incompetency permitted this barrier to be broken, and the beginning of the end was at hand. This is the important event which we have now to describe.

In the year 375 A.D. there existed a great Gothic kingdom in the north, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea, under the rule of an able monarch named Hermanric, who had conquered and combined numerous tribes into a single nation. On this nation, just as assassination removed the Gothic conqueror, descended a vast and frightful horde from northern Asia, the mighty invasion of the Huns, which was to shake to its heart the empire of Rome.

The Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) were conquered by this savage horde. The Visigoths (Western Goths), stricken with mortal fear, hurried to the Danube and implored the Romans to save them from annihilation. For many miles along the banks of the river extended the panic-stricken multitude, with outstretched arms and pathetic lamentations, praying for permission to cross. If settled on the waste lands of Thrace they would pledge themselves to be faithful subjects of Rome, to obey its laws and guard its limits.

Sympathy and pity counseled the emperor to grant the request. Political considerations bade him refuse. To admit such a host of warlike barbarians to the empire was full of danger. Finally they were permitted to cross, under two stringent conditions: they must deliver up their arms, and they must yield their children, who were to be taken to Asia, educated, and held as hostages. Such was the first fatal step in the overthrow of Rome.

The task of crossing was a difficult one. The Danube there was more than a mile wide, and had been swollen with rains. A large fleet of boats and vessels was provided, but it took many days and nights to transport the mighty host, and numbers of them were swept away and drowned by the rapid current. Probably the whole multitude numbered nearly a million, of whom two hundred thousand were warriors.

Of the conditions made only one was carried out. The children of the Goths were removed, and taken to the distant lands chosen for their residence. But the arms were not given up. The Roman officers were bribed to let the warriors retain their weapons, and in a short time a great army of armed barbarians was encamped on the southern bank of the Danube.

These new subjects of Rome were treated in a way well calculated to convert them into enemies. The officials of Thrace disobeyed the orders of the emperor, sold the Goths the meanest food at extravagant prices, and by their rapacious avarice bitterly irritated them. While this was going on, the Ostrogoths also appeared on the Danube, and solicited permission to cross. Valens, the emperor, refused. He was beginning to fear that he had already too many subjects of that race. But the discontent of the Visigoths had drawn the soldiers from the stream and left it unguarded. The Ostrogoths seized vessels and built rafts. They crossed without opposition. Soon a new and hostile army was encamped upon the territory of the Roman empire.

The discontent of the Visigoths was not long in breaking into open war. They had marched to Marcianopolis, seventy miles from the Danube. Here Lupicinus, one of the governors of Thrace, invited the Gothic chiefs to a splendid entertainment. Their guards remained under arms at the entrance to the palace. But the gates of the city were closely guarded, and the Goths outside were refused the use of a plentiful market, to which they claimed admission as subjects of Rome.

The citizens treated them with insult and derision. The Goths grew angry. Words led to blows. A sword was drawn, and the first blood shed in a long and ruinous war. Lupicinus was told that many of his soldiers had been slain. Heated with wine, he gave orders that they should be revenged by the death of the Gothic guards at the palace gates.

The shouts and groans in the street warned Fritigern, the Gothic king, of his danger. At a word from him his comrades at the banquet drew their swords, forced their way from the palace and through the streets, and, mounting their horses, rode with all speed to their camp, and told their followers what had occurred. Instantly cries of vengeance and warlike shouts arose, war was resolved upon by the chiefs, the banners of the host were displayed, and the sound of the trumpets carried afar the hostile warning.

Lupicinus hastily collected such troops as he could command and advanced against the barbarians; but the Roman ranks were broken and the legions slaughtered, while their guilty leader was forced to fly for his life. "That successful day put an end to the distress of the barbarians and the security of the Romans," says a Gothic historian.

The imprudence of Valens had introduced a nation of warriors into the heart of the empire; the venality of the officials had converted them into enemies; Valens, instead of seeking to remove their causes of hostility, marched with an army against them. We cannot here describe the various conflicts that took place. It will suffice to say that other barbarians crossed the Danube, and that even some of the Huns joined the army of Fritigern. The borders of the empire were effectually broken, and the forest myriads swarmed unchecked into the empire.

On August 9, 378, the Emperor Valens, inspired by ambition and moved by the demands of the ignorant multitude, left the strong walls of Adrianople and marched to attack the Goths, who were encamped twelve miles away. The result was fatal. The Romans, exhausted with their march, suffering from heat and thirst, confused and ill-organized, met with a complete defeat. The emperor was slain on the field or burnt to death in a hut to which he had been carried wounded, hundreds of distinguished officers perished, more than two-thirds of the army were destroyed, and the darkness of the night only saved the rest. Valens had been badly punished for his imprudence and the Romans for their venality.

This signal victory of the Goths was followed by a siege of Adrianople. But the barbarians knew nothing of the art of attacking stone walls, and quickly gave up the impossible task. From Adrianople they marched to Constantinople, but were forced to content themselves with ravaging the suburbs and gazing, with impotent desire, on the city's distant splendor. Then, laden with the rich spoils of the suburbs, they marched southward through Thrace, and spread over the face of a fertile and cultivated country extending as far as the confines of Italy, their course being everywhere marked with massacre, conflagration, and rapine, until some of the fairest regions of the empire were turned almost into a desert. It may be that the numbers of Romans who perished from this invasion equaled those of the Goths whom imprudent compassion had delivered from the Huns.

As regards the children of the Goths, who had been distributed in the provinces of Asia Minor, there remains a cruel story to tell. Though given the education and taught the arts of the Romans, they did not forget their origin, and the suspicion arose that they were plotting to repeat in Asia the deeds of their fathers in Europe. Julius, who commanded the troops after the death of Valens, took bloody measures to prevent any such calamity. The youthful Goths were bidden to assemble, on a stated day, in the capital cities of their provinces, the hint being given that they were to receive gifts of land and money. On the appointed day they were collected unarmed in the Forum of each city, the surrounding streets being occupied by Roman troops, and the roofs of the houses covered with archers and slingers. At a fixed hour, in all the cities, the signal for slaughter was given, and in an hour more not one of these helpless wards of Rome remained alive. The cruel treachery of this blood-thirsty act remains almost unparalleled in history.