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The Goths Cross The Danube
The doom of Rome was at hand. Its empire had extended almost inimitably
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 counselled 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
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
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
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 equalled 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.
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