Theodosius’ policy towards the Goths and its consequences on the Empire’s fate

Theodosius fully appreciated the dangers of the Gothic problem, and he pursued unremittingly a policy of conciliation and friendship. He cultivated the friendship of the Gothic chiefs, whom he used constantly to entertain in his palace, and he secured devoted adherents among them, conspicuously Fravitta. There seemed a chance that if this policy was pursued the Goths might gradually become enervated, lose their old restlessness and national pride, and reconcile themselves permanently to the provincial state. But if under the panic inspired by the Hun and the dexterous dealings of Theodosius they seemed to have declined from their old independent spirit, this spirit was far from being yet extinct; and though some of them were fully reconciled to the privileges of belonging to the Empire, there were others who thought otherwise. This division of opinion was openly manifested when a civil war in the Empire seemed imminent in A.D. 392 on the death of Valentinian II. The Gothic chieftains met and held a debate. The question was whether they would fulfill their obligations as federates and serve in the army of Theodosius in the coming war. One party, led by Eriulf, said that they should repudiate their oaths, and that their interests were not the interests of the Empire; the other party which advocated loyalty was led by Fravitta, and the dispute became so hot that in the end Fravitta killed Eriulf.

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The historical interest of this debate is that it may be considered the prologue to the decisive event which happened a little later, after the death of Theodosius the Great in 395. The Goths had followed Theodosius in his campaign against the usurper Eugenius, but when the great Emperor died, and was succeeded by two very young princes, they reconsidered the position. It proved to be a turning point in their history. The parliament of the people met and deliberated. Two motives, so we are told, operated. One was dislike and distrust of the new Emperors or rather of their advisers; the other was the apprehension that if they continued as they were they would become enervated and would decline. In any case it was felt that preparation must be made for emergencies; and that the best preparation was unity and a leader.

Accordingly the Visigoths chose a king. They had a family marked out to furnish a king whenever a king should be chosen, the Balthas or Bolds, and their choice fell on Alaric the Bold. This chieftain was now about thirty years old. He had been born in Peuce, an island at the mouth of the Danube. He had taken part in the recent civil war, marching with Theodosius as captain of Gothic federate troops, and had returned with high hope of promotion in the Roman army. He aspired, like other German leaders, to the post of a Roman general commanding legions. He built on promises made by Theodosius, but when the Emperor died the promises were not fulfilled, and Alaric was bitterly disappointed. Another course was opened to him when he accepted the kingship of his people in 395: he was to be a foe and not a defender of the Empire; first in the Balkan peninsula and afterwards in Italy.

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Theodosius had left his two sons under the protection of Stilicho, his most trusted general, to whom he had given in marriage his sister Serena, so that Stilicho was the uncle by marriage of the two young Emperors. Their names were Arcadius and Honorius; both of them were weak (but not vicious), and the younger, Honorius, simply feeble-minded. To Arcadius fell the rule of the eastern portion of the Empire; he reigned at Constantinople. To Honorius fell the government of the western portion; Rome was his seat of government, but he generally resided at Milan. The government of the west was entirelyin the hands of Stilicho, who was the Maste of Both Services, and thus controlled completely the entire military establishment of that portion of the Empire. For the next thirteen years Stilicho would be the most powerful man in the Roman world.

The power of Stilicho would not turn out to the advantage of the Empire ultimately. He was a German by descent; his ancestors on his father’s side were Vandals. He was one of the series of able Germans who in the second half of the fourth century had risen to the highest military commands, conspicuous among whome were Merobaudes, Bauto, and Arbogastes, who was the immediate predecessor of Stilicho as Master of Both Services, and the murderer of Valentinian II. Germans now were coming very close to the throne. Stilicho, as we saw, married the sister of Theodosius, and Bauto was the father of the lady Eudoxia, who became the wife of Arcadius. Thus their son, the Emperor Theodosius II, had German blood in his veins.

The policy of the Emperors of elevating Germans to supreme posts in the army was unfortunate in its consequences. The policy was due to necessity of making the service attractive to the ablest by the prospect of great power and wealth. But, as it turned out, it was disastrous. Especially was it a singular misfortune that just at the moment when the Empire had to be defended not only against the Germanic peoples who were continually knocking at its gates, but also against Germanic peoples who had already gained admittance, and when there were two incapable sovrans, its defence should have devolved upon a German, attached though that German was both to the Empire and to the reigning family.

The fact that in the critical moment which the Roman state had now reached the two chief actors -the defender as well as the aggressor- Stilicho and Alaric- are both Germans best illustrates one of the many features in the history of the fourth century -a gradual Germanisation within the Empire. Yet formally -and this is important to remember, and equally characteristic of the situation- it is not correct to speak at this juncture of an attack upon the Empire on the part of Alaric and the Visigoths. If Alaric had been told that he was attacking the Empire and seeking to destroy it he would have repudiated the suggestion. The existence of the Roman Empire was almost a necessity of thought to Alaric and all his contemporaries. They might ravage the Roman world and try to force the government to do and give what they wanted; but all their ambitions were consistent with its continuance. The Goths aimed at gaining a satisfactory position within its borders; they did not feel like hostile outsiders. The attitude of the Goths, and of the Germans generally, towards the Empire was the direct result of the gradual Germanisation. They did not regard it as a foe to be defeated, but as a great institution in which they had a natural right to have a place, seeing that men of their own race had already a large part in it. Their hostilities, they might have argued, were less like the hostilities of external enemies and rivals, than of disfranchised classes struggling to wrest for themselves a place in the body politic. Alaric did not feel a stranger in a realm in which Germans held the highest posts and might even intermarry with ladies of the imperial house; a realm for which he had himself performed military service.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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