How the Eastern Romans escaped the Gothic danger (4th-5th cen. A.D.)

Valens was succeeded on the throne by Theodosius, a wise and virtuous prince, who set himself to repair, by caution and courage combined, the disaster that had shaken the Roman power in the Danube lands. With the remnants of the army of the East he made head against the barbarians; without venturing to attack their main body, he destroyed many marauders and scattered bands, and made the continuance of the war profitless to them. If they dispersed to plunder they were cut off; if they held together in masses they starved. Presently Fritigern died, and Theodosius made peace with his successor Athanarich, a king who had lately come over the Danube at the head of a new swarm of Goths from the Carpathian country. Theodosius frankly promised and faithfully observed the terms that Fritigern had asked of Valens ten years before. He granted the Goths land for their settlement in the Thracian province which they had wasted, and enlisted in his armies all the chiefs and their war- bands. Within ten years after the fight of Adrianople he had forty thousand Teutonic horsemen in his service; they formed the best and most formidable part of his host, and were granted a higher pay than the native Roman soldiery. The immediate military results of the policy of Theodosius were not unsatisfactory; it was his Gothic auxiliaries who won for him his two great victories over the legions of the West, when in 388 A.D. he conquered the rebel Magnus Maximus, and in 394 A.D, the rebel Eugenius.



But from the political side the experiment of Theodosius was fraught with the greatest danger that the Roman Empire had yet known. When barbarian auxiliaries had been enlisted before, they had been placed under Roman leaders and mixed with equal numbers of Roman troops. To leave them under their own chiefs, and deliberately favour them at the expense of the native soldiery, was a most unhappy experiment. It practically put the command of the empire in their hands; for there was no hold over them save their personal loyalty to Theodosius, and the spell which the grandeur of the Roman name and Roman culture still exercised over their minds. That spell was still strong, as is shown in the story which the Gothic historian Jornandes tells about the visit of the old King Athanarich to Constantinople.

“When he entered the royal city,  ‘Now,’ said he, ‘do I at last behold what I had often heard and deemed incredible.’ He passed his eyes hither and thither admiring first the site of the city, then the fleets of corn-ships, then the lofty walls, then the crowds of people of all nations, mingled as the waters from divers springs mix in a single pool, then the ranks of disciplined soldiery. And at last he cried aloud, ‘ Doubtless the Emperor is as a god on earth, and he who raises a hand against him is guilty of his own blood.’ ”

But this impression was not to continue for long. In 395 A.D., the good Emperor Theodosius, “the lover of peace and of the Goths”, as he was called, died, and left the throne to his two weakly sons Arcadius and Honorius.

The Roman Empire, at the end of the fourth century, was in a condition which made the experiment of Theodosius particularly dangerous. The government was highly centralized and bureaucratic; hosts of officials, appointed directly from Constantinople, administered every provincial post from the greatest to the least. There was little local self-government and no local patriotism. The civil population was looked on by the bureaucratic caste as a multitude without rights or capacities, existing solely for the purpose of paying taxes. So strongly was this view held, that to prevent the revenue from suffering, the land-holding classes, from the curialis, or local magnate, down to the poorest peasant, were actually forbidden to move from one district to another without special permission. A landowner was even prohibited from enlisting in the army, unless he could show that he left an heir behind him capable of paying his share in the local rates. An almost entire separation existed between the civil population and the military caste; it was hard for a civilian of any position to enlist; only the lower classes—who were of no account in tax-paying—were suffered to join the army. On the other hand, every pressure was used to make the sons of soldiers continue in the service. Thus had arisen a purely professional army, which had no sympathy or connection with the unarmed provincials whom it protected.

The army had been a source of unending trouble in the third century; for a hundred years it had made and unmade Caesars at its pleasure. That was while it was still mainly composed of men born within the empire, and officered by Romans.

But Theodosius had now swamped fhe native element in the army by his wholesale enlistment of Gothic war-bands. And he had, moreover, handed many of the chief military posts to Teutons. Some of them indeed had married Roman wives and taken kindly to Roman modes of life, while nearly all had professed Christianity. But at the best they were military adventurers of alien blood while at the worst they were liable to relapse into barbarism, cast all their loyalty and civilization to the winds, and take to harrying the empire again in the old fearless fashion of the third century. Clearly nothing could be more dangerous than to hand over the protection of the timid and unarmed civil population to such guardians. The contempt they must have felt for the unwarlike provincials was so great, and the temptation to plunder the wealthy cities of the empire so constant and pressing, that it is no wonder if the Teutons yielded. Caesar-making seemed as easy to the leaders as the sack of provincial churches and treasuries did to the rank and file.

When the personal ascendency of Theodosius was removed, the empire fell at once into the troubles which were inevitable. Both at the court of Arcadius, who reigned at Constantinople, and at that of Honorius, who had received the West as his share, a war of factions commenced between the German and the Roman party. Theodosius had distributed so many high military posts to Goths and other Teutons, that this influence was almost unbounded. Stilicho Magister militum (commander-in-chief) of the armies of Italy was predominant at the council board of Honorius; though he was a pure barbarian by blood, Theodosius had married him to his own niece Serena, and left him practically supreme in the West, for the young emperor was aged only eleven. In the East Arcadius, the elder brother, had attained his eighteenth year, and might have ruled his own realm had he possessed the energy. But he was a witless young man, “short, thin, and sallow, so inactive that he seldom spoke, and always looked as if he was about to fall asleep” His prime minister was a Western Roman named Rufinus, but before the first year of his reign was over, a Gothic captain named Gainas slew Rufinus at a review, before the Emperor’s very eyes. The weak Arcadius was then compelled to make the eunuch Eutropius his minister, and to appoint Gainas Magister militum for the East.

Gainas and Stilicho contented themselves with wire-pulling at Court; but another Teutonic leader thought that the time had come for bolder work. Alaric was a chief sprung from the family of the Balts, whom the Goths reckoned next to the god descended Amals among their princely houses. He was young, daring, and untameable; several years spent at Constantinople had failed to civilize him, but had succeeded in filling him with contempt for Roman effeminacy. Soon after the death of Theodosius, he raised the Visigoths in revolt, making it his pretext that the advisers of Arcadius were refusing the foederati, or auxiliaries, certain arrears of pay. The Teutonic sojourners in Moesia and Thrace joined him almost to a man, and the Constantinopolitan government found itself with only a shadow of an army to oppose the rebels. Alaric wandered far and wide, from the Danube to the gates of Constantinople, and from Constantinople to Greece, ransoming or sacking every town in his way till the Goths were gorged with plunder. No one withstood him save Stilicho, who was summoned from the West to aid his master’s brother. By skilful manoeuvres Stilicho blockaded Alaric in a mountain position in Arcadia; but when he had him at his mercy, it was found that “dog does not eat dog”. The Teutonic prime minister let the Teutonic rebel escape him, and the Visigoths rolled north again into Illyricum. Sated with plunder, Alaric then consented to grant Arcadius peace, on condition that he was made a Magister militum like Stilicho and Gainas, and granted as much land for his tribesmen as he chose to ask. (396 A.D.)



For the next five years Alaric, now proclaimed King of the Goths by his victorious soldiery, reigned with undisputed sway over the eastern parts of the Balkan Peninsula, paying only a shadow of homage to the royal phantom at Constantinople. There appeared every reason to believe that a German kingdom was about to be permanently established in the lands south and west of the Danube. The fate which actually befell Gaul, Spain, and Britain, a few years later seemed destined for Moesia and Macedonia. How different the history of Europe would have been if the Germans had settled down in Servia and Bulgaria we need hardly point out.

But another series of events was impending. In 401 A.D., Alaric, instead of resuming his attacks on Constantinople, suddenly declared war on the Western Emperor Honorius. He marched round the head of the Adriatic and invaded Northern Italy. The half-Romanized Stilicho, who wished to keep the rule of the West to himself, fought hard to turn the Goths out of Italy, and beat back Alaric’s first invasion. But then the young emperor, who was as weak and more worthless than his brother Arcadius, slew the great minister on a charge of treason. When Stilicho was gone, Alaric had everything his own way; he moved with the whole Visigothic race into Italy, where he ranged about at his will, ransoming and plundering every town from Rome downwards. The Visigoths are heard of no more in the Balkan Peninsula; they now pass into the history of Italy and then into that of Spain.

While Alaric’s eyes were turned on Italy, but before he had actually come into conflict with Stilicho, the Court of Constantinople had been the seat of grave troubles. Gainas the Gothic Magister militum of the East, and his creature, the eunuch Eutropius, had fallen out, and the man of war had no difficulty in disposing of the wretched harem-bred Grand Chamberlain. Instigated by Gainas, the German mercenaries in the army of Asia started an insurrection under a certain Tribigild. Gainas was told to march against them, and collected troops ostensibly for that purpose. But when he was at the head of a considerable army, he did not attack the rebels, but sent a message to Constantinople bidding Arcadius give up to him the obnoxious Grand Chamberlain. Eutropius, hearing of his, danger, threw himself on the protection of the Church: he fled into the Cathedral of St. Sophia and clung to the altar. John Chrysostom, the intrepid Patriarch of Constantinople, forbade the soldiers to enter the church, and protected the fugitive for some days. One of the most striking incidents in the history of St. Sophia followed: while the cowering Chamberlain lay before the altar, John preached to a crowded congregation a sermon on the text, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, emphasizing every period of his harangue by pointing to the fallen Eutropius—prime minister of the empire yesterday, and a hunted criminal to-day. The patriarch extorted a promise that the eunuch’s life should be spared, and Eutropius gave himself up. Arcadius banished him to Cyprus, but the inexorable Gainas was not contented with his rival’s removal; he had Eutropius brought back to Constantinople and beheaded.

The Magister militum now brought his army over to Constantinople, and quartered it there to overawe the emperor. It appeared quite likely that ere long the Germans would sack the city; but the fate that befell Rome ten years later was not destined for Constantinople. A mere chance brawl put the domination of Gainas to a sudden end. He himself and many of his troops were outside the city, when a sudden quarrel at one of the gates between a band of Goths and some riotous citizens brought about a general outbreak against the Germans. The Constantinopolitan mob showed itself more courageous and not less unruly than the Roman mob of elder days. The whole population turned out with extemporized arms and attacked the German soldiery. The gates were closed to prevent Gainas and his troops from outside returning, and a desperate streetfight ranged over the entire city. Isolated bodies of the Germans were cut off one by one, and at last their barracks were surrounded and set on fire. The rioters had the upper hand; seven thousand soldiers fell, and the remnant thought themselves lucky to escape. Gainas at once declared open war on the empire, but he had not the genius of Alaric, nor the numerical strength that had followed the younger chief. He was beaten in the field and forced to fly across the Danube, where he was caught and beheaded by Uldes, King of the Huns. Curiously enough the officer who defeated Gainas was himself not only a Goth but a heathen: he was named Fravitta and had been the sworn guest- friend of Theodosius, whose son he faithfully defended even against the assault of his own countrymen. (401 A.D.)

The departure of Alaric and the death of Gainas freed the Eastern Romans from the double danger that has impended over them. They were neither to see an independent German kingdom on the Danube and Morava, nor to remain under the rule of a semi-civilized German Magister militant, making and unmaking ministers, and perhaps Caesars, at his good pleasure. The weak Arcadius was enabled to spend the remaining seven years of his life in comparative peace and quiet.

(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)



Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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